To LMS or not?

An interesting discussion on Twitter for #ohedchat today about blended learning which not surprisingly turned to the necessity of an LMS for effective teaching in a blended classroom. But first what is blended learning? Wikipedia defines it as:

Blended learning is education that combines face-to-face classroom methods with computer-mediated activities.[1] According to its proponents, the strategy creates a more integrated approach for both instructors and students.

The terms “blended,” “hybrid,” “technology-mediated instruction,” “web-enhanced instruction,” and “mixed-mode instruction” are often used interchangeably in current research literature.[2] However, recent researchers in the United States tend to use the term “blended learning” with more regularity.

To me it is the use of digital technology to enhance and extend classroom learning experiences.

So is an LMS essential? Well it depends….

My first teaching job was at Trinity Grammar School Kew – the first school in Australia to have a school wide wireless network to support a laptop program. In the same year I started they also employed a teacher to look at a means of providing access electronically via the web to resources. He designed his own LMS (called school tool from memory) and I spent lots of time trying to break it. Anyway after a couple of years out of teaching I went back into a school that used Moodle – once again I always pushed the boundaries (often getting frustrated and the limitations!) using Moodle extensively.

The change of schools (and systems!/ states) to Coffs Harbour High school also coincided with the start of the Digital Education Revolution – so of course I set up a school Moodle (http://coffsharbourhighschool.com ) that is still up and running today. the reception to this was to say the least varied! But now four years on I myself only use Moodle for some things (e.g online administration of diagnostic tests at the commencement of the year and for subject selection for senior years) preferring to use a blended (pun intended!) mix of tools to assist with the digital support of students learning. This includes blogs, Edmodo, Adobe Connect, Facebook, OneNote, DropBox,Mathletics, Mangahigh….

Of these I have found FaceBook to be the most successful (for senior students) mostly because it is an online ecosystem which my students already inhabit. Ever since I started teaching my mantra with regards technology has always been “see what the kids are using in their own time and try to find an educational use for it”. If I post a message on Facebook (in our class group) at 5:30 am (I am a morning person!) 90% of my class will have read it before school – why because the first thing they do when they wake up is check Facebook! But this approach is not for everyone –  it is to unpredictable and ever changing.

Whenever a new way of digital delivery is suggested many teachers want to: be trained;  know exactly what it should be used for; know how it will be managed etc. Now this is all fine but my question is how will you ever keep up with the continual changes if you expect a training course in everything! Consequently many just don’t do anything! An LMS offers a nice safe place for these types of teachers and will perhaps expose them to alternative options down the track.

The biggest problem I have  with any LMS is that it is a walled garden (this includes things like Yammer too!) but once again this is what makes them attractive to some people and institutions.

I guess there is no “One-size fits all approach” some will want to use an LMS and others not – but at what point does an institution no longer provide an LMS for those who want to use it and are not confident elsewhere?  Will removal of something perhaps destroy the confidence of a teacher who has either just taken or is about to take steps to use online tools in the classroom? How can our professional learning as educators be more about taking risks and experimenting with new tools? And WHO IS GOING TO TAKE OVER ADMIN OF OUR SCHOOL MOODLE? :0 Any volunteers?

DER One year on – a rant

Following an email from the HT English yesterday (@madiganda) in which she noted the negative attitude that Year 10 students displayed toward the use of the DERNSW laptops in a letter to the editor as part of their Trial School Certificate I decided to come out swinging…..

To me it is not unexpected that the students are commenting that laptops have caused distractions and are actually having a negative impact on their learning because generally as a school we are not using them properly yet. (Disclaimer – there are some teachers who are!). From my conversations with Year 10 students the sum of the laptop usage at the moment is to: copy notes down from the board into a “One Note”; access the internet for research; and play Mathletics.

While these represent a start none of them seem to promote higher order thinking or seem to be a change in pedagogy as a result of the DER program. In fact while the NSWDET has done a fantastic job with the introduction of the DER my only criticism would be that it gave teachers an out with regards the opportunity for a “revolution”. A common phrase bandied around is “the laptops don’t have to be used every lesson”, “we can do this slowly”…etc. While both those statements are true I would never have said them! It is the same as me saying to my students: alright you really need to do these problems by the end of the week they an essential part of the course – but if you are not confident then just do one (or none!) and that will be enough. Too many teachers in my opinion have latched on to the option that laptop use is optional.

The obvious answer is training of teachers so that when they are not confident they seek out support – with an emphasis on the teachers seeking the support. At present it appears as if there is an expectation that training be provided – but what in? What program? How? When? Who pays? (I know there is a DER PL fund!). In a reply email yesterday @madiganda noted “Maybe the kids don’t like it as much because it does require them to use their initiative a bit, to be self-directed and many are not capable of this yet – again, we need to train them from Year 7 for this self-directed learning.”. I think she is spot on – and not just for the students.

Teachers themselves need to become independent and self-directed in their learning of the technology – to seek out information when it is required – as it is required. Venture into the unknown – take the risk – challenge all previously held perceptions of how teaching is undertaken. Model being a learner to our students. Make mistakes – be a non-expert.

I think I understand the “softly, softly” approach that has been taken with regards the politics of education. But I do not agree with it. In fact it reminds me of a quote from Douglas Adams in the ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ : “utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”. Do we fit that mould?

One year on I think we should be focusing on the “revolution” part of the DER. And revolutions are often bloody. I for one have taken my gloves of – I will no longer accept the idea that technology should not be an integral part of all education – particularly when access issues are removed. Students and teachers must now embrace the opportunity. To steal President Obama’s famous phrase: “Yes we can”.

A future post will contain a brainstormed list of suggested activities that promote higher order thinking using technology.

Part 3a – Waiting game produces more fear/anger

Had some negative opinions expressed today when I raised the possibility of going to a DER PL session. It is increasingly becoming obvious that the digital divide is causing a large amount of angst amongst some staff and this is exposing itself as anger against the provision of new technology that will upset the status quo.

How do I convince / cajole someone who believes that laptops will have absolutely no benefit for his class and does not want to even open his mind. Hmmmm…. a challenge. I don’t want to just give up on one of my best Mathematics teachers!

As the rollout to students at our school moves closer those with their heads in the sand are realising that it will actually happen soon! HELP!

As most of my staff are digital immigrants (not yet arrived!) they claim that it is useless to teach them a software program (e.g. GeoGeBra) when they won’t use it for several months – they will forget it. On a more positive note – one of the faculty who was issued with a T1 laptop used it today for the first time with a projector to show the Yr 12 class past examiner comments!

Any suggestions that are left of centre would be greatly appreciated

CHHS Maths Dept towards DER – Part 3 Waiting

Well since I wrote my initial posts a lot has changed.

However some things also haven’t changed. There is still a large element of fear (in my faculty and generally) of the introduction of laptops and the impact that this will have in our classrooms.  More often than not this fear is expressed as denial – “I’m not going to use laptops – they won’t help my teaching at all”, or as an excuse “I can’t start teaching with laptops until the department provides all teachers with one”.

While I agree that it certainly would be better if ALL staff had laptops before the students so as to facilitate skills acquisition and good will, it simply is not going to happen.  In fact Dianne Marshall explained the financial reasons at the North Coast ICT conference the other day – it is linked to the financial year spending of DET as the teacher laptops are funded through the state and not the Commonwealth DER project. As educators we NEVER have the perfect environment in which to perform our duties. Sure we should always aim for the best, but have to have coping mechanisms to deal with the actual reality. Simply refusing affects our students far more than attempting in less than perfect circumstances. – End of rant 🙂

The wireless install has been fraught with glitches. Some of the information that has been passed on to our network administrator and the Head of the ICT committee by the contractors is just wrong.  Thank you to the DET online communities and Tweeps for passing me the correct information. We needed to locate our new box approximately 20 metres from the Campus Distributor – and put in the adjustment paperwork prior to install. Conduit was run to enable the two boxes to be connected.  When the IBM guys turned up 3 weeks ago to hook them up, they only had the short leads, then proceeded to spend 3 hours arguing with the network administrator that the new box and the Campus distributor would communicate with each other wirelessly! Needless to say eventually they realised that this was not the case and left….. 3 weeks ago.

On a more positive note, like many schools CHHS had only 2 of 4 building distributors with optic fibre cabling, with one BD (that serves Maths & TAS) a run of over 110m of Cat 5.  However as part of our 7.5 million Capital Works Project the Maths faculty has just taken possession of 2 new classrooms – and the Cat 5 cable that supplied the BD was replaced with Optic Fibre! 🙂  I will post some pictures of our new classrooms later!

A lack of available LAN connections in our staff rooms means that the majority of T1 rollout users have not connected at school (only at home) and subsequently the copies of Windows are now past the 30 day trial – annoying but still functional. It will take considerable time before the teachers at my school are taking responsibility for their own PL in non-school hours, there is still a common opinion that this should all occur 9 – 3 and the amount of upskilling that is required WILL NOT be possible during these hours. I have already dedicated 1 Maths Faculty Meeting to the GeoGeBra introductory course.

But I do agree with Stu Hasic – DER NSW is an awesome accomplishment thus far and it has only just begun.

Twitter in 4 easy steps – creating a PLN

Step 1 – Join.

This doesn’t work at school – Twitter is blocked. You have to join at home. I will explain later how to tweet at school.

Go to http://twitter.com Join – create a username that identifies who you are. Make sure that your profile allows someone to get to know you a bit – e.g. Maths Educator with an interest in technology (or whatever). Don’t protect your tweets, or noone will know to follow you (counter productive for a social network)

Step 2 – Sign in.
Then find people to follow – a good place to start is to follow someone you know is already on Twitter. I am SimonBorgert there is another Maths Teacher SimonJob Once you started following a couple of people look at who they follow or reply to – it gives you other people to follow as well.

Step 3 – Start tweeting.

This is where you say what you are doing in 140 characters or less. BUT for educators this is more about the sharing E.g. “Just found this really cool website http://gooogle.com“. If someone tweets something that you like you can either favorite it – or retweet it (that is where it is rebroadcast to your network). Follow more people. The @SimonBorgert stuff is where someone is replying to a user. Start replying to people that you like what they are saying. Then they will start following you.

Step 4 – To tweet from school. If you already have an IGoogle page there is a Twitter Gadget. Otherwise goto http://tweetree.com/ and sign in with your username and password.

Some Useful Links

http://www.twitterforeducators.com/

http://onlinecollegedegree.org/2009/03/19/100-tips-apps-and-resources-for-teachers-on-twitter/

An interesting compelation of tweet about the DER with suggestions for teachers (back when it was called L4L) from @darcy1968 a DP on the South Coast
http://darcymoore.net/2009/05/31/the-best-of-l4l-advice/

This last link is from @lasic on twitter
http://www.scribd.com/doc/14062777/Twitter-Handbook-for-Teachers

I will put all of this on my blog http://simonborgert.edublogs.org

Enjoy happy tweeting!

Wolfram|Alpha -the end of traditional Maths Homework?

For those of you who haven’t played with Wolfram|Alpha it is a great new concept in search engines with a very worthy goal

Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.

While much of the information has a decidly US centric vent it is still possible to discover some interesting information – watch the introductory video for ideas. Other people have also been blogging about it’s potential impact in education http://slav.globalteacher.org.au/2009/05/19/wolfram-alpha/

As I delved a bit deeper it became immediately apparent that it will easily function as a free CAS (Computer Algebra System) and give worked solutions to almost all routine Mathematics homework problems and you can bet as soon as the kids have discovered this is the case they will be using it. Just as many teachers in other subjects prefered setting assignments BG (before Google) because at least the students needed to read the information they were plagiarising (as they were copying it word by word from the encyclopedia), I think that Wolfram|Alpha will have the same impact on Mathematics tasks.  I know that CAS have been available for a while now – but they have not been as easily accessible or free.

For example I am currently setting a homework assignment for a NSW 2 Unit Mathematics class studying Linear Functions. Typical question that might be asked are sketch Equation . Normally a student would have to find the x intercept and the y intercept, then sketch – a key skill that the question is assessing. However those less capable students could get this from W|A

Plot

Or if the student was asked to find the point of intersection of 2 lines Equation
they would normally have to solve them simultaneously then sketch both lines labeling key points (once again key concepts the question is designed to assess) . Or from W|A the simultaneous solutions

and then the lines can be plotted as in the first example.

Mind you both of these simple examples can be solved in GeoGebra (free software being included on the Laptops being issued to all students in NSW 9 -12) see below

These are only trivial examples (relevant to what I am covering right now!) and are no different to issues arising from the introduction of graphics calculators in other systems (NSW does not currently allow them in 2 Unit or Extension Mathematics).  However W|A is capable of far more complex interations for example a typical Extension 2 question normally a case for integration by parts which W|A gives as:

Full working and everything!

Of course student understanding of these key concepts will still be able to be assessed using in-class tests, but it is obvious that simple drill and practice homework assignments will most likely be solved by time-poor students using technology – why wouldn’t you?  (Typical student note to conscience – “I understand and I’ll practice it later-  I’ve just got to get to work and earn money right now and the assignment is due tommorow”)

However it is not all bad!  In fact I am very keen to investigate further how Wolfram|Alpha can be used to enhance student learning of Mathematics in the same way that some (rich?) schools have used Mathematica (the big brother of Wolfram|Alpha) See http://library.wolfram.com/infocenter/BySubject/Education/Precollege/ for some examples.

So as Mathematics teachers do we bury our head in the sand for a while and hope that the students don’t discover these powerful tools until later, then attempt to adjust our tasks accordingly?  Not this little black duck 🙂 I’m going on the front foot and showing my students what these tools can do for them (if I can get a room with internet connection tomorrow!) and putting the Wolfram|Alpha search bar on the blog I maintain for my students

As for the Linear Functions assignment for my 2 Unit class – looks like it is back to the drawing board so I had better stop procrastinating. But it is clear – the days of traditional drill and practice homework are over!