Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Presentations R Me

I mentioned it in yesterday's blog post and realized I hadn't discussed it before. I had done a presentation on line with Lync and although Lync does do recordings, the presentation was pretty dynamic with questions coming from the participants.  In order to make the presentation efficient for folks who couldn't attend, I used Present.Me to not only show the slides but also show me as I discussed the content.
Well, it turned out that Present.Me was a big hit amongst the faculty (not like that wasn't my ulterior motive, eh?)  The Physical Education department used it in the Middle School for the student presentations on health topics almost immediately.
I've found this introduction-by-stealth to be the best way of providing faculty with new ways of looking at information.  Giving them a link or even doing a video on a new application really does work... not surprisingly (thank you Dewey) actually showing them how it works in a context pushes their thinking and doing.  And it is fun on my end to mix content and process together.

I have a rule that I don't focus too much on editing my audio/video ... if I make my content "perfect" it sets the bar way too high for teachers who are already busy. These are for internal use, so they can be rougher than what I would put out in my classroom or for publication.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Improving the message

Our Guidance Department hold a series of information nights throughout the year and the most recent one was on our School's curriculum.  We do follow the provincial (i.e. government) curriculum so that our students leave with the expected high school diploma.  However, we have our own diploma with its own requirements -- we ask for more service learning (25 hours a year), more languages, more math, etc.  
Not every parent can attend these information evenings and so the Guidance Department asked me to put the information up on line.  They wanted more than just the Powerpoint because that only provides a structure upon which they build their presentation.  Normally, I'd encourage them to use Present.me but they didn't want to have a particular "face" associated with the content -- they really only wanted a voice over for the Powerpoint.  They wanted a screencast.  

With that decision made, we talked a good deal about the screencast itself.  The original conversation was that they would just record the entire evening's presentation and take that audio.  But of course, putting up 45 minutes of Powerpoint will produce something no one will ever sit through.  So we finally worked our way down to 5 minutes as a way of getting the information that people need and that they would actually watch.  

That also just happens to be the maximum recording length on Jing.  I admit to being a Jing advocate. It and Evernote are the only teaching applications I feel are worth paying for the premium versions -- although the free versions are powerful enough for most people.  

We sat down and did a few examples, recording ourselves in Powerpoint.  We used the editing screen rather than presentation mode so that they could see the slides that were coming up and prepare their thoughts.

We also talked about using the PAUSE button so they could change slides, click PAUSE, think about what they were going to say and then continue the recording.  

When you only have five minutes you really have to think about your message.  It makes your presentation more focused, more informative and more likely to be heard & seen.

It's not you, it's me (iPad edition)

I always hesitate to discuss this issue publicly because I know I'm coming from a place of privilege.  We had Apple in for a meeting last week and they were, of course, trying to sell us on the iPad -- but it would be a step backwards for me.  I've been teaching at laptop/tablet computer schools for 15 years now.  We skipped over the transition-space that people are now in with their 1:1 iPad programs mostly because compressed technology like that didn't exist at the time.

The iPad is not the be-all-and-end-all of education technology and it is slightly discouraging that high school folks are not moving to more accommodating technologies even though the cost is greater.  The principal issue is that iPads are very limiting to both the teacher and the student.  They do not do construction well -- just compare writing anything of any length with an iPad versus Word on a tablet computer.  Contrast the expansive but integrated and organized nature of OneNote on a tablet PC with any app on the iPad; it is too difficult to bring together material of different types and formats into one document-space and then work on it to put together something meaningful.

That's not to say that what people are doing with their iPads isn't amazing. You use the tool you have, and you use it to the utmost.  But, they are not the solution to issues in pedagogy to technology in high schools.  They're a stepping stone, and a small one at that.  For many schools, limited by budgets and policies, iPads form that intermediary step.  They will eventually move towards a more sophisticated tablet environment.  I would say objects like the Microsoft Surface are likely the next step for schools not already invested in iPads.

Curiously, our next step is to likely marry our next tablet computer with a second, smaller device.  The tablet computer is the construction space... the smaller device is the consumption.

My ultimate dream, of course, is that the construction space becomes more fluid.  Say, any surface (wall, table) within the classroom become the construction space with the student merely logging on to that surface -- and they still carry a device that allows them consumption and simple construction.  But that's likely five years away.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Documenting our Action Research

Our school has our teachers choose a working group that meets every third week of the school year; they choose a topic to look at and then work through a discussion, research and perhaps reach a project.  I had the opportunity to work through with a group today looking at how teacher reflection can promote and strengthen pedagogical change.

Although we use OneNote in our classrooms, I encourage teachers when they're looking at collecting research and tracking progress to consider Evernote.  For one, it separates the information flow that surrounds the classroom in OneNote from the personal & professional space that things like this research project comprises.  Second, Evernote is an all-around excellent tool for capturing information especially in a case like this where the teachers want to capture instances where students have said or done something that indicates their pedagogical change has had an effect or been noticed.

Your Evernote account has an email address (say, something like carmstrong2134@evernote.com ... no, that's not mine) that makes a note from anything that is sent to it.  So, if a student amkes a comment, the teacher can use their smartphone to quickly email the comment to Evernote; it's logged in and stored away for later reflection and discussion.  Once the student comment is stored in a note in Evernote, you can add comments, attachments (say, the assignment the student was working on), pictures, links, etc.  It's remarkably flexible.

You can also email photos, audio captures and video to Evernote and annotate them with both text and ink ... handy when you have a tablet computer and a convenient pen!  And everything is automatically synced from your computer to your smartphone and to the web.  Incredibly handy when you're travelling.  Folks often compare it to Dropbox... my suggestion is that you consider Dropbox as your working space and when the documents are done and ready to be shared, stored or filed away well, that's what Evernote is for -- it's your own reservoir, your Wikipedia, your Google (since everything text-based is indexed and searchable).

And lastly... I am a big fan of the easy way you can quickly share a note with anyone else.  Two clicks and boom, you have a link to the note to send, tweet or post on Facebook.  So I use the Evernote web clipper to make a note from a webpage covering Seymour Papert ... and now I can share it back with a link.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Moving forward with Sharepoint & Word

Well, I've nudged some middle managers forward.

While OneNote is the major collaborative space that we use here at School, it's not the most comfortable working environment for folks groomed on Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

We have in the past used GoogleDocs for the collaborative building of projects but many people are uncomfortable with the simultaneity of editing.  The regular Microsoft Office programs do allow for asyncrhonous sharing of documents when tied with Sharepoint.  

So I passed on the following bit of knowledge to a few of our managers who are working on a couple of projects:
  1. Go to a Document Library on one of your Sharepoint Sites
  2. In the Documents ribbon at the top of the screen you have a New Document button.  It comes with Word and we can add Excel, Powerpoint and other common programs.  Let's say we click on Word...
  3. It opens up Word on the tablet and you can write your document. When you finally hit Save (or Exit) you are encouraged to save it in the Document Library on Sharepoint that you started this process in.  So you save it there.
  4. Now, when users see the document, they click on it and it opens up in the Web version of Word, ready to be edited.  Now, the web app is great for the vast majority of editing that most folks do on a day-to-day basis.  Users also have the option of opening it in Word on their tablets but I'm hoping that we can get people comfortable with doing their editing in the browser.

My hope is that by encouraging this we'll start to reduce the number of emails that include attachments.  Documents can be stored in Document Libraries and when people want to make changes instead of emailing new copies around, they can just make their changes online.
We'll see!

Monday, February 18, 2013

You can lead a horse to water...

So on Monday morning (Family Day holiday here in Ontario), I ran across the following tweet:
@principalspage: Can you teach someone how to teach?
And I replied with the cliche
@sig225 You can lead a horse to water...

Much like any skill, you can teach (or, more specifically, go through the motions since teaching should imply learning) anyone anything.  I've sat in an audience being 'taught' many times but unless I not only hear and engage with the material and then bring it to some meaning in my own life (and that can be academic, personal or social) that I haven't really been taught it.  The teacher can try all they want, some of the responsibility lies with the student.

When it comes to teacher education, and in this I include both pre-and in-service, we've all sat in PD and even when energized by the information we don't adapt our teaching style even if we know student learning would be improved.
In part it goes back to a quote from Dylan Wiliam that I keep foremost in my head when I'm planning professional development: "Improving practice involves changing habits, not adding knowledge".  We don't need to teach our teachers more, we need them to forget the things that we know are wrong (relying on lectures, not promoting discourse, using learning styles, etc) and actually have them teach like they've been taught (balance collaboration & teacher direction, reinforcing skills & using projects, etc).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Padlet née Wallwisher, Part II

Well I've spent a considerable amount of time responding to the feedback on Wallwisher; the students have definitely found it convenient to have a space to voice their concerns.  While I began it as place to talk about improvements to our OneNote Binder system, the students definitely did not feel limited to that initial suggestion.  At all.  Questions ranged from OneNote, to Outlook, to Windows 8 and then into the history of OneNote.  And a few diversions into internet memes.  Okay, I put my share of wood on that fire in my responses.
And I thought it important to respond to each note -- they were asking legitimate questions, good questions, that they either hadn't heard the answer to yet (and for sure IT has been sending a consistent message on many of their issues) or we weren't even aware of the problem.
I have to say that Padlet provided a great space for this... as moderator I could edit notes to add my comments and group notes around similar themes as well as leaving space on the page so that when students arrived at the link they had a place to put their note.  And the space kept growing as I push notes down and to the right, so there was never a concern of running out of space.
I would like a way to export the notes.  This weekend I'll be sitting down and pulling out the important themes so I can talk to the students in our grade meetings -- for sure, if one student put up a note, there are more with the exact same concern that haven't gotten the urge to say something.
In any case, thank you Wallwisher/Padlet for giving an arena for my students to respond.
The faculty Wallwisher was equally successful in percolating issues to the surface.  In volume and hilarity, though, the students win hands down.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I have, of course, been an avid user of technology since I left the crib (much to my mother's chagrin) so I've experimented with a lot of things for a long period of time.  Working with our Upper School Director on an brainstorming activity, I introduced him to Wallwisher.  Now, Wallwisher (and others of its ilk) have been around a long time and in fact, Wallwisher has just undergone some serious improvements in usability and design.  For starters, it's now called Padlet.
He didn't want to rush in to folks using it without having experienced it before his project so I sent out a link to Faculty asking for feedback on our OneNote Binder system as we plan for summer upgrades.  I set the board up to be a private link (so unless you have the link you can't find the board) and unmoderated (people can put up anything on the board and have it seen instantly by others).
I also sent around to students another Wallwisher board asking for similar feedback.  I used a private link again but set it up to be moderated (you know, just in case).  Not surprisingly, I only had one comment that was off topic (and it wasn't even rude).  We have good kids who tend to approach these situations responsibly.  Sure there's some silly stuff but they know how to behave with faculty online.
I then went in to each comment and added replies to each comment; as moderator I can edit and delete anything that is posted (a handy thing to have).  Not everyone is going to revisit the Wall but I will be dropping by the Grade Meetings to go over the important themes that have arisen from their feedback.

And then later today I received inquires from three other classes and clubs who wanted to use Wallwisher for collecting feedback and brainstorming.  Just my share of the lucky 10,000!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lync, redux

Well, there's been some great outcomes from the Lync PD last week.

I had a social group that's planning dinner events ask how to use Lync so that they can meet without having to be physically together -- in the past, they've had to meet several times throughout the day to ensure that all the participants are aware of what's going on.  They can videorecord their meeting for folks who are absent and use it as an archive of their plans.  And, of course, using doodle.com to help them schedule when these Lync meetings are going to happen.

In Outlook, next to a user's name is a small box.
If it shows green, you can right-click it
and start a conversation

The Languages department has been particularly interested.  I'm going to be showing the French students how to use Lync (in French) to engage in video conversations (in French) and record them for later revision and reflection.  Lync has video recording of conversations built-in, which is an important capability that's not in Skype.  It is Google+ Hangouts using YouTube but there a number of issues around YouTube that doesn't make it as popular with teachers, students and parents.

And the Arabic teacher is planning on using Lync to converse with native speakers in Jordan.  Since the students are 8 hours difference, our students and theirs will talk after-hours and record the conversation for viewing in class.

On each class' site, students
can see teachers' Lync availability

The faculty are becoming accustomed to using Lync as both a synchronous and asynchronous communication medium with me (and others)... many of our internet resources like Outlook and our LMS show a user's availability so they are feeling more free to contact me if they see the little green box that means I'm open to conversation.  And if I'm not around or doing something else, it "saves" it to my mailbox so I can continue the conversation later.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It's too far to walk

I heard this twice yesterday.

From two different sides.

Both were about venturing into a different space.

I have my feet in two distinct camps, that of the IT Department and that of the faculty.  And I heard the exact same words coming from both.

It's too far to walk.

It wasn't laziness that prompted them to say that... there's something more.  There's a reluctance to engage with "the other".  They aren't (or don't) like us.

And so I push, and I prod; I josh and I cajole.  And I try to make it seem so that it's not so far.  But it was a good reminder that the issues of professional development and technological growth aren't limited by our budget or by our policies but rather by the individual, personal feelings (and perhaps, fear) we have for the other.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic LicenseImage by  ClaraDon

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Building Assessments in OneNote

In our grade 9 classes we have an alternative approach to final assessments in June.  Rather than exams, the students engage in day-long activities for each subject.  Not quite project-based assessments but somewhat similar; I'm going to call them projects just for convenience.  The science and geography departments have gotten together to develop a joint project that's going to run all day.  The students will be broken up into small groups and, through research, discussion and planning they'll come up with a decision on this real-life issue.

The science teacher came to me with the problem: the materials the students produce throughout the day has to be assessed by both their geography and their science teacher. It's going to include maps, diagrams, pictures, notes, jottings.  Our students work in the free-form OneNote every day so they're accustomed to being able to just drop in text, ink, audio, video, you-name-it onto a "page" and arrange it as they see fit.  In the past, the teachers have just had the students do things on paper but now that they're used to the OneNote Binders, the teachers don't want to have to shuffle paper back and forth between them.

So here's what we're going with:  we're going to provision a OneNote Notebook for the day.  There will be an administrative Section for all the information, forms and instructions the students will need for the day -- students can then copy in anything they need to fill out into their own Sections. The student section will be under the student's control for the day -- at the end of the assessment, the teacher will press a button and it will lock down the student's access.  Essentially, once the teacher presses the button, the student has turned their work in.

In the meantime, the student's geography and science teacher will both have access to the student's section.  While the Notebook will actually contain about 150 students, each teacher will only see the 15 students that comprise their class section.  So, the student's geography teacher will be able to write on the student's work from the convenience of their own tablet and it will sync through to the student's science teacher, and vice versa.  And, using Lync, the two can discuss issues of assessment from their offices or homes.  What's nice is that the Teacher section can include a class-wide collection for all the marks so the two departments will know exactly how the project worked for all the students; all the teachers will sync automatically as they complete their marking.

Now, for folks not using OneNote, you could run something parallel with Google Docs.   There are management issues that are easier to deal with when we're using OneNote and ActiveDirectory to simplify the permissions arrangement -- but where there's a will :)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

PD, en masse, for Lync

One of the adaptations to the schedule that began last year at school was the addition of an hour of "meeting time" available every Wednesday morning.  Now, it is often consumed by department meetings, a (incorrectly named) PLN and faculty meetings, I do occasionally get some time to do some large-scale PD.  So far I've had two 20 minutes sessions.  To be fair, doing PD in front of the entire faculty is not particularly productive -- they are all at different levels in terms of pedagogy and technology that there isn't a lot of common ground to build on.  And what I'm not all about is wasting their time showing TED talks -- they don't need inspiration; they're already an extremely motivated group, eager to learn.

This time, I thought I would go over Microsoft Lync.  Now, Lync is not particularly well know; as a form of introduction it's really similar to Skype or MSN Messenger (and in fact, it's on the way to being merged with Skype).  It's deeply integrated into Microsoft Office and our Windows network/OS so it makes sense to try to leverage its use across the school.  Any mention of a user on our system (from email to course webpage to OneNote) has behind it a way to initiate a conversation with that user; it's part of the ecosystem.  Everything is logged centrally so there's an aspect of security that's not true with other messaging systems.

The experience was incredible ... there were about 70 faculty members and most of them were enthusiastic participants.  So much so that it was likely overwhelming to the less investigation-oriented.  It was a lot of fun to be sitting on the theatre stage watching them interact with their laptops, comment to their neighbours and at the same time see their communication online.  I couldn't stop chuckling.  I didn't lock anything down so they were pushing all the buttons ... they were modifying powerpoints, answering polls, chatting, video'ing, you name it.

Some folks want the pedantic "Step 1: do this... Step 2: do that".  In a large gathering, that's not practical and it also doesn't mesh with my beliefs on how students (and in that I include teachers) learn.  Lync was a playground that needed exploring and folks needed a chance to make mistakes and recover from them.  When we're in smaller groups or 1:1 we can do the "here's how you do this" but for a short time they just need to splash around in the pool.  When they want to develop a technique, we'll do that in better conditions.

And did it work?  Well, I had people talking to me about ideas on how to use it in and out of class, with both students and our parents.  And we did  have a snowday on the Friday and I had folks who had never used it Lync'ing me with questions. So long as there a buzz, I'm happy.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Swimming upstream

Teachers try to be efficient with their use of time; like first responders, teachers are dealing with situations that are often dealt with immediately, in the moment. They want to provide opportunities for students to show their learning, and then provide meaningful feedback, planning and differentiating along the way. Things that get in the way are quickly discarded -- by necessity. So that brings me to Sharepoint. Two stumbles arrived today:

1) We're using a discussion board in one of our courses. Now, to be fair, the students and teachers are learning how to use a discussion board correctly. Some students were writing their reflections in Word and uploading an attachment to the Board. That's not good board etiquette and its something that's being discussed. But to make matters worse, Sharepoint's out-of-the-box discussion board hides the attachment from the viewer: you see a small paperclip icon and then have to click twice to get to the Word document. It appeared to the class that their attachments (and therefore, their homework) wasn't there.

2) Working with another group, we were trying to develop a way to manage the Fitness Room. Sharepoint's built-in calendars are excellent and we've used them in some innovative ways. But in order to simplify things and remove options that clutter and confuse, you have to triple-click on a tucked away options page. Yes, that's right; a triple-click. Every environment has its strengths and weaknesses.

Sharepoint is excellent in many respects. Its integration with all of the Microsoft products have really streamlined many of our operations. The combination of OneNote and Sharepoint has been extraordinary! And programming produces some extremely powerful solutions. But it requires considerable background and skill to make things happen. That's not going to easily happen when teachers' expertise doesn't include Microsoft programming.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Knowledge is power

One of my biggest goals this year has been to ensure that people have the information they need, when they need it in the form that they find usable. We've made some great steps forward using Excel to re-package a lot of the information held by our Student Information service (and held is the operative word -- it's locked in there quick tightly). Faculty have been able to use the information to involve students and parents more in day-to-day student life, academics and co-curriculars. And they've been doing a lot more analysis on formative and summative grades to find patterns, differentiate instruction and improve assessments.

Another big step is redesigning Sharepoint to make certain that information is stored and presented in an organized way. Over the years, Sharepoint has grown in a haphazard way and users haven't really been made aware of how they can control their experience with the tools built in to it. Admittedly, it's not the most user-friendly system but with a little support folks have been able to make the experience more agreeable to both them and their students.

We've also been fortunate to have an amazing Sharepoint programmer available to us. He's developed a number of apps for faculty, students and parents that is opening up the School to our community in ways that invite even greater participation. People now know more and more about what's happening at school, when and how -- and immediately who to contact if there's an issue. And as a marker of our success? A meeting today with our Guidance Department on our new Student Success Portal: "I'm never sure, CA, if you're joking about what's possible -- until you show us it's all ready for us to use it."