Saturday, April 24, 2010

Back-Channel Chat During Test

About a week and a half ago I read Royan's post about Test Taking with the Backchannel. My first reaction was "Is this guy crazy? You can't do that on a test". As I read the post I started to think that it was good for Royan to try this but it's not something I would ever do. By the end of the week I was planning how I could incorporate a back-channel for one of my tests. I just kept thinking about the amount of information that I would be able to gather from my students based on the questions they asked and the answers they gave (assessment for learning). It seemed like the right thing to do. Coincidentally, a few days before the test, one of my students asked if we (as a class) could do the test together. She was joking but she was very pleased to hear about the chat.

Here are the logistics. Not everyone in my class has a hand-held device and the school doesn't have wireless. Using the back-channel in my room  was out of the question. I booked a computer lab and we wrote the test in there. Not ideal but it worked. I thought about using Twitter and had we done the test in the classroom that's probably what we would have done. Since we were at the computers I created a Moodle chat within our course and that's what we used for the back-channel.

The day before the test I informed my class that they would be able to (and were encouraged to) use the chat for their test. We modelled asking good questions and providing good answers (guiding but not giving the answer).

My predictions of how the test would go, which are probably no surprise:
a) My top students would do a lot of question answering and may ask the occasional small question.
b) The middle of the class would ask lots of questions and occasionally answer a question or two.
c) The bottom of my class wouldn't contribute much to the chat.

There were a couple of surprises. The first was one of my top students who had good conceptual understanding but couldn't quite put the nuts and bolts together. Not only did she provide some great help to get students started but she also answered in a way that was guiding but not too helpful. In fact, overall I would stay this was true of most answers given.

The second surprise I had was that some of my mid-mark students provided much more assistance than I had anticipated. Again the help was good help. I was very pleased.

It's unfortunate that prediction c) was in fact bang on. Unfortunate because those students are the ones that have the most to gain from this type of test. I would hope that if we did this enough they would start to see the value and buy in.

Would I do this again? Definitely. In fact, I think I would try to have all applied level tests this way. The students in this class are the types of students that don't spend a lot of time thinking about the questions. When doing a test on their own, if they don't know how to start they give up. This doesn't allow me to see what they really know. If they can get a hand starting, at least I can see how much they actually know instead of seeing a blank answer. Don't get me wrong.  I probably wouldn't use this strategy for all classes. I'm not sure how I would feel about using a back-channel in a grade 12 university bound class. I'm not sure how cooperative students would be given the competition for scholarships and entrance to university.

I would love to hear your comments.

Monday, April 19, 2010

How to Motivate the Unmotivated?

A colleague and I had the chance last week to introduce grade 8 students to Moodle. The purpose of the visit was to provide students with a quick introduction to the high school's online learning environment so that they would feel a little more comfortable when they arrived in grade 9.We gave a quick tour of some of the courses that would be useful to all students, such as the Library and Student Services courses.

Once the tour was finished I led students through an interactive unit price activity based on Dan Meyer's idea. We were working on a very tight time line so we worked through the activity as a group. The students seemed very engaged in the discussion. They were participating and asking great questions. I outsourced the unit conversions to different groups (about 6 or 7 students each doing the same unit conversion). I told students how to use Google to do the conversion. Later they converted to a unit rate.

We did this presentation a total of three times at two different schools. I felt, as you might expect, that each presentation was better as the day went on. I also found that participation in the outsourcing seemed to drop. In fact in the last presentation an entire group didn't do their calculations. I was absolutely floored. Here was an interesting (or so I thought) math activity that was accessible to all and there were a ton of students who chose not to participate. I don't think it was because they couldn't. I think it was more that they wouldn't.

The above may not be fair to the last group that we presented to so in their defense it was the end of the day. Perhaps they were thinking 'Who's this strange guy teaching us?' or 'this isn't for marks so I don't need to do this'. In any case I left at the end of the day wondering what I did wrong? How could I fix it for next time so that everyone would participate? Then I started thinking about my own classes. Why is it that some students in my classes choose not to participate or do the work? How can I motivate students that don't seem to be motivated?

I know that there are no easy answers to any of the questions but  I've realized that the questions need some pondering. My goal over the next while is to work at finding ways to motivate and engage students who aren't typically motivated or engaged. If you have any ideas please share them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

TEDxOntario Ed

I had the opportunity last week to view TEDxOntarioEd. For those of you not familiar with TED talks the idea is that speakers who are passionate about a subject will give a talk based on the theme 'ideas worth spreading'. TEDxOntarioEd was focused on education and how we can make changes for the better.

As I watched the presentations I kept thinking about what a great idea this was. Here I was sitting at home watching some top notch speakers share their ideas about improving education. I truly was in awe. I couldn't help but wonder why every teacher in the province wasn't watching. The event was extremely well organized, full of great ideas, entertaining and downright fun.

For me one of the best parts of the night was the back channel. There were so many great comments posted on Twitter to @TEDxOntarioEd that I felt there really was a sense of community among the participants. Although I was at home it felt as if I was surrounded by other educators. The only thing I would change for next time would be to create a satellite location so that the experience could be shared with others in person as well as on Twitter. Hopefully a satellite location would also allow teachers who wouldn't normally be a part of an event like this to participate.

I would like to thank all of the organizers for their time and effort. Great job. I look forward to the next one!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

iPods as Learning Tools

Apple sent me two iPod touches and a MacBook to test out at school for the period of 1 month. Unfortunately, the one month period included spring break as well as Easter break. That meant that one month turned into about twelve school days. We made the best of the time we had with the devices.

One of the first things that people ask when they find out I want to use iPods in class is 'What apps will you use?'. I get a kick out of that question because the iPod is about so much more than just apps. The iPods that I had were not connected to the Internet (no wi-fi at school) but I think that's where the power of these mobile devices really lies. I think it totally transforms the classroom. Rather than having a class of 1 teacher and 30 students, mobile devices make it so that you have 31 students (including the teacher), 1 facilitator (the teacher) and access to a seemingly unlimited number of subject experts for all subject areas. iPods and mobile devices allow the classroom and learning to be opened up beyond the four walls of the physical classroom. How many times do we get asked questions we don't know the answers to? In a math class you might be talking about finding the volume of a barrel of oil. A student may ask what the current price is. This can suddenly become a lesson in research. Have students find the cost of oil. Why are they getting different answers? Who's right? Why? Instead of shrugging the question off as not important to the lesson, geometry students can learn skills that are critical for all 21st century learners.

In addition to accessing subject experts or current information, iPods can be used as a device to consume and even create content. The obvious use here is podcasts. This is where I focused my time with the iPods we had. I created podcasts that would help students prepare for the provincial literacy test (here's an example). I took the print material that we had, which wasn't very appealing to high school students, and turned it into a video podcast that they could watch anytime, anywhere. Students listened to the podcasts in class as they were preparing for the test. If they had to write a news report they could listen to the podcast about news reports. They could pause it as they worked, start over when they were done to ensure that included all parts of the news report or just listen to it on the bus as a way to remind them what needed to be included. There are tons of podcasts out there that would suit just about any subject area. As an extension to this students could create podcasts to show their understanding of the content or to help others understand.

It doesn't just have to be podcasts that students consume. Imagine the school newspaper or course notes available on the iPod. Imagine a school created app that students could use to access important information and documents relevant to their school. This is not new! There are schools doing it. In fact the app could be developed by students in the computer science (CS) class. Heck why not teach the CS students how to use the iPhone SDK so they can learn CS and produce content that can be shared around the globe?

Now...onto the apps. I didn't use a ton of apps but found some that would be extremely beneficial.

Math Games: I downloaded a ton of math games. When students were finished their work they could work at improving their number sense and problem solving skills.

Graphing Calculators: I tried a bunch of them. The ease of use and resolution is far superior to the TI-83.

Stanza: A simple ebook reader. Takes away the stigma that reading books isn't cool. Nobody knows you're reading a book. This is an easy way to engage reluctant readers (especially boys). They get hooked on the device.

International Children's Digital Library: A collection of children's stories from around the world. Great for classes studying children's literature.

Story Kit: Allows the user to read a story and then modify the story. You can also start your own story from scratch an include your pictures. Once you're done you can share your stories with others.

Quick Office: Open and edit office documents on a variety of hand helds.

Voice Memo: Good for creating audio podcasts right on the iPod.

Google Earth: Great for geography classes

This is just a very small sample of the apps that could be used in classes. For a more detailed list check out

I really believe that the iPod can change the way we teach. It is a cost effective way to ensure that our students become true 21st century learners. It's extremely engaging and is the ultimate tool for differentiated instruction. I truly believe that all schools (if not all students) should have mobile devices in order to help students get the most out of their learning.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

How Not To Teach Statistics

I had to teach statistics to my unmotivated grade 11 students. I thought I'd try to make things interesting. Textbook questions for a unit like this are typically boring and unrealistic. I decided that as a class we would create a survey that was interesting to teens, post the survey online, have everyone share the link then analyze the results. To me this was a good way to make the material interesting and relevant and was also a way to teach some digital media skills.

We created a Google form that would house the questions. The survey answers we're automatically dumped into a spreadsheet, where in theory they could easily be analyzed. I shared the link to the survey with my students through Moodle and they could share it using their preferred methods.

The trouble with data sets is that they are rarely very clean. Many of the questions generated by students in the class used a scale (poor, good, very good, excellent). This data was clean and would provide good graphing opportunities. I also wanted students to have numerical data. How else can you find measures of central tendency or measures of spread?  We did create some questions where the answer should have been numerical (How many hours of television do you watch per week?). The trouble is that many of the survey participants either didn't enter a number or entered numbers that were unrealistic. After the first day of releasing the survey we had 16 responses, six of which were unusable. I decided to scrap the project and we headed back to the textbook. We discussed the problems with surveys so that we could all learn from the situation.

I'll have to rethink this activity for next time. Ideally, we'd have a Wii in class and could generate a ton of data for a given game: scores, time played, levels reached, points/second, player biographics, etc. We could then analyze that data. Add a Wii to the wish list.