Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Embed Quizzes Around Youtube Videos with Blubbr

Blubbr is a tool wherein you can search for a youtube video and create a quick quiz around it. The quizzes can be made pretty easily and serve as a formative assessments.

The Blubbr dashboard shows trivs you created and drafts.

The applications for this are fantastic, and as an educators, being able to design assessments around popular videos in our content areas is awesome! Click here to do a "triv" on solubility and concentration.

I have only used Blubbr once with my students and there were some issues. I'm still learning if these problems can be solved my me, or the developers at Blubbr. I think that if we can create a community of users that provide feedback, we can help them develop their product to meet our needs. So far the major issues that I've found:

1.) I linked up my first 5 question quiz to our platform and some students could do the entire quiz and some others did only 1 question and it said it was finished. Not sure if that is an issue related to the browser and flash player, bandwith or bugs.

2.) As it is free, there is no record of how each student did (unless of course they told me). Could teachers be given the opportunity to create class lists?

3.) There must be five questions. Couldn't there be less?

4.) Each question follows a 20 second maximum snippet of video. So, if you create a 5 question triv/quiz with 20 seconds of video beforehand, the quiz is then a shortened version of the entire video. For example, 5 x 20 second snippets of video are 1 minute and 40 seconds total so if you show a long video, huge sections will be cut out of the quiz. My solution to this was show the full version at the beginning of class, followed by class activities and then the triv at the end. Is it possible to have longer sections of video before the questions pop up?

Blubbr is great. To the folks at Blubbr: thanks for developing such a great tool and I hope that this is seen as constructive and feedback that makes your tool better.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Filtering Ourselves Away from the World

Eli Pariser's TED talk on "Filterbubbles" is probably one of the most shocking TED talks I have ever seen, and a must see if you have 10 minutes of free time. He starts by asking two colleagues to search for "Egypt" and take a screenshot of their results. The results were very different. They were different because Google's algorithm will collect results based on the two different search histories of the users. One had been keeping up with the Arab uprising and the other more on travel to the region. Thus, Google has provided search results that they think are better tailored to the interests of each user, and thus keep coming back to Google.    

Searches Tailored to Our Web Experience
This should come as no surprise. A repeat customer to Amazon.com will be bombarded with new products to buy as they are related to previously purchased items. Or they will be told "customers that bought ________, may also like _________". While this trend has a statistical advantage in marketing dollars, I too believe that this will have a negative impact on our ability to learn new things, as opposing viewpoints are filtered from our view.

To put this into perspective, a few years ago, a workshop presenter enlightened me to the term "ego casting" which is that people tend to surround themselves with opinions and attitudes that mirror their own. Doing so helps confirm our biases and reinforce our own stereotypes and in turn make us feel like "we're doing the right thing". We must be right if Rush Limbaugh believes the same thing as us?

Image courtesy of skeptics.stackexchange.com

I don't think so. Increasingly, news, political and religious organizations are appealing to an increasingly polarized audience, and this polarization is cutting the viewers off from opposing necessary points of view that make it necessary to understand an issue from multiple perspectives. Fox News has cajoled to the forefront of right leaning new organizations and MSNBC to the Left. CNN, with all it's moderation (maybe left center leanings) has withered. Maybe it's CNN's failure to market to a target audience. Maybe it's that people don't want to think. Maybe people don't know the difference. In any event, studies now show that some news organizations have morphed into propaganda and political machines with their talking heads and supporting sound bites. They get people riled up, and let's face it, truth is now a commodity, and with information overload, people are getting tired of fact checking. They just want to be told what to believe.

Rise of a Polarized World
What does this mean for education? Barry Ritholtz on his blog "The Big Picture" has recently written recently about a decision to get rid of comments. His reasoning is that his ideas were ideas were initially shared to make people think and the comments a method of 2.0 interface. The problem is that the polarization of some of his readers have recently made it unbearable to have a civilized discourse. As adults are now the digital immigrants, they have not been taught the basics of digital citizenry and have skipped straight to using 2.0 to confirm their own biases and crucify dissenting points of view.

These internet "Trolls" are a new demographic. They are readers who move and mobilize against any hot issue. Abortion, creationism, welfare, politics, religion, all have their share of faceless or disguised avatars who are now quick to swoop in, read a headline and skip straight to leaving a comment in the hopes their righteousness will convert others. These people never ask questions, or thank the authors, or ever ask for opinions. They may even link "truths" that support their position. Never mind if it's peer reviewed.    

Implications for Educators
The onus of creating "Digital Citizens" is a new lexicon for the 21st century educator. Where we are all trying to explore new ways to make learning more efficient, creating quality content, and use creative commons licensing, I believe a new challenge will be to create students who are open-minded and willing to listen to, and evaluate other points of view in a way that is respectful and in line with how the internet was originally designed by university researchers: a forum to share ideas and collectively learn.

Image courtesy of CC and San Diego Air and Space Museum

As a science teacher who teaches the history of the world and evolution, this has got me thinking about my role a facilitator and teacher of such contentious topics. A teacher must shelter their students from their own biases, but can this really be done? Just yesterday, I learned of a teacher that was facing dismissal after it came out that they urged their students to vote for one presidential candidate over another. Misuse of power, or freedom of speech?    

What We Can Teach
 I believe we can do a lot to bring a fair and balanced education. There are now a number of interesting search engines that are not tailored to algorithmic history. I think search engines like instagrok and Spezify will be explored more and more as they do not require a username. I think that blogs (students and a classroom blog) will serve as very powerful forums for students to reflect on viewpoints, give credence, evaluate arguments and do so in a balanced and respectful way before they set out into the world. I believe that teaching a student to be open-minded and susceptible to new ideas is the most beautiful accomplishment of any teacher. Consider doing so as you explore topics with your class. Offer debates. Review sources. Only then will our students start to be open-minded, which is what any education wants a child to be.

Research Tool: Spezify

While exploring research tools as part of our tech class, I stumbledupon Spezify. I really digg it.

Spezify's start page has search items that are trending

Spezify's start page has searches that are trending[/caption] Spezify is a search engine that takes a topic of interest and turns the search results into a flipboard-ish result with videos, tweets, flickr images, and other websites. In the case below, I searched for "chemistry"

Search results are a compilation of tweets, images, and videos

A search result will bring up images, videos and other links in a flipboard format. Searching for information is being transformed by tools like Spezify and instagrok. Where teachers could simply say "look up _______" such tools make every web search a fresh, new experience. I think that by utilizing a variety of search tools, we give students the opportunity to explore, play, hang, and geek out.

If you're a teacher using such tools, consider trialing them ahead of time. In my search above, my querie on chemistry resulted in an image from "breaking bad"-probably not the sort of content that is appropriate for students.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Creating Connected Classrooms

I've been learning about the concept of connectivism in education. For those of you new to this term, I'll try an apropos definition: "Connecting to a network of people from which we can learn and share ideas." We are inspired by individuals that build learning networks of people with whom they can use as soundboards, get more readers to their work and create collaborative learning communities from which to learn. We are taken aback when students venture down this path as Will Richardson notes when he met Laura Stockman, an 11 year old who gets service initiative ideas from "her readers."

Are Connectivists Outliers?
 It seems like such students are outliers which brings me to a question: Can teachers create connected classrooms where everyone has connections? Certainly they can invite experts in through skype chat, or tweet critiques back and forth. They can post invitations on educational networking sites like Ning and Edmodo, but do individual students walk away with a budding friendship, or merely a passing memory with a person they saw on a screen? Some students are probably happy to say to their parents: "I skyped with an expert in class today" and some others may friend them on Facebook or write them a personal tweet and see the value of continuing a dialogue with this person as they are an expert in their field. It is here that the trail tempers off and the water gets murky about whether or not this leads to student learning.


As a middle school teacher, my students are still very young with regards to content knowledge. Would Richard Dawkins (probably the most renowned expert on evolution) take the time to talk to my class that has a surface level understanding of gene sequencing, neutral genetic adaptations and very little understanding of chromosomal biology? Perhaps I'm overly optimistic thinking that my 11 year olds have such interests. Perhaps we should save connectivism for high school students that start to indicate interests in careers of study. I've written Mr. Dawkins tweets along with many others like him who have inspired my work as a teacher, and usually, my efforts fail to get a reply back. But sometimes I do get a bite.

I recently tweeted Adam Sadowsky a blog post that I wrote wherein I was referencing creativity and the work that my students did last semester on Rube Goldberg Machines. I showed my students a video of Mr. Sadowsky's TED talk and the concepts of creativity, remixing and remaking. Surprisingly, Mr. Sadowsky wrote me a lengthy email back with URLs of projects that his business (Synn Labs) is developing. I put some links onto our school Moodle site and have started encouraging my students to view his work, comment, and develop connections. Through doing this, I feel that I, a digital immigrant, could facilitate connections between my students and experts in the field so that my students can learn from them and develop partnerships for the future.    

Twitter as a Connecting Tool
After the success of connecting with Mr. Sadowsky, I'm starting to apply what I've been doing with Twitter and my math students to have them connect with experts in the realm of finance. I'm in the process of finishing a unit on percents which I have turned into an overarching unit on finance. Students have tracked investments and developed an investing philosophy based on their experience of tracking a stock, savings account, CD and small business start-up.

Over the next 48 hours, students will formally formulate their investment philosophy with a blog URL with links to their investments which they can tweet to our twitter hashtag chat. Once that is out there, I'm planning to invite a dozen or so experts at finance through Twitter to join our discussion and provide their "2 cents worth" on the viability of what we are doing, student's investing philosophies and hence provide experts with whom my students can connect. The idea of my students taking an interest in following financial gurus like Warren Buffet and Suze Ormond is dizzying and I like to think that by following such people that they will have a steady stream of advice and information long after they have left my classroom.

I believe that we are just starting to discover the applications of Twitter as a connecting tool between students and experts in the field. It's beguiling to think that a mere math teacher, I can connect my students to engineers, architects, graphic designers, financial experts and others in related fields. As a science teacher, I can do the same with biologists, physicists and paleontologists as well. Students can read tweets from authors, politicians, presidents, and the other influential people of the world. We may throw our net over a huge area and not get many connections, but if we're persistent, we will get replies from an interested few and foster connections that may lead to apprenticeships, fellowships and partnerships.

 World Without Borders-Learning Well with Others Will Richardson Edutopia      

Teaching Financial Literacy

My seventh graders are concluding a unit on percents. Since I started teaching this unit at SSIS, I have transformed this into a unit about money and financial understanding. There is much debate about who should be responsible to teach children the basics about money habits such as investing and saving. I think that many children emulate the spending or savings habits of their parents, so to hear about it from a teacher can give a great outside perspective. Already I have asked my students to ask their parents about which investments that they favor so that they can start to gain an understanding of real estate, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and bank related investments such as CDs (certificates of deposit) and savings accounts. Many of our unit's essential questions focus on such investment vehicles:
  1. How can managing an allowance help me learn about money?
  2. What is a better investment a CD or a savings account?
  3. Why do some people have difficulty in saving money?
  4. What is the best investment in the market today?
Obviously, our seventh graders don't have much capital to invest, but my goal is that if we talk to students about the powerful force of compound interest at a young age, they'll come to realize that anyone can become a millionaire-if they start investing early, have distinct financial goals and are dedicated and diligent.  

Image Courtesy of Wisegeek.com

Projects in the Math Classroom
As part of this unit of study, we used google spreadsheets to track investment growth over time of CD's, savings accounts, and a stock of choice. Google spreadsheets also allow the easy graphing of data for Students will see the effects of interest and how it compounds over time. Students also learn how to calculate profit after marketing a product and marking the profit and percent gain after subtracting the initial principal. See some student examples here, and here. You can also follow student's investment philosophies through our Twitter chat at #SSISMathChat

Our final project was simulating a free market where students could bring items to sell to willing buyers at fair market price. Alliances were made with commissions and discounts were struck before the market closed. See it in action with the video below:

 Teaching Financial Literacy at Home
To any parents are reading this post, consider talking to your children about money in the coming years. From my personal experience, I was astounded that if one starts saving early, even with modest amounts, a person can become a millionaire. Sadly, many people come to realize that debt too accrues interest, and some people get burdened with debt and live paycheck to paycheck to pay it off. An interesting website that families can used to teach financial literacy is "Banzai". It's free, and has a number of activities that families can do to teach financial understanding. Another one is "Mint" that has some great videos. There was definitely a buzz after our buying and selling activity in class. Students had some great reflections on their choice of items to sell, but most students brought candy and other baked goods. One student, was very clever and brought some children's items as she knew I had a three year old daughter and would be prone to buying plush toys and kiddy DVD's. Being able to understand buyers was a valuable lesson for her and many others and maybe a sign of budding entrepreneurialism.

To tie it all together, students wrote a letter to their future children, giving them advice on how they should invest their money. What surprised me the most is after the students filed out into the hallway, students from my other class rushed up to ask them: "What was popular in the market today?"  

Additional Readings
7 Creative Ways to Teach Kids about Money
8 Ways Children are Not Wise about Money
Why Teens Fail at Managing Money
How to Teach your Kids Financial Independence  

6 Tips for Quality Student Blogging

This article first appeared in Fractus Learning on February 7th, 2013.

“Gary, so much of what students blog about is crap and not worth reading. It seems like the emphasis is on creating content, but not quality content.” my coworker Tara commented last week.
Her point is so important, and one that educators are struggling with around the world. As schools are moving towards student blogging platforms such as kidblogs, edublogs and word press, the question is: “How do we use blogs to compliment classroom activities and serve as a portfolio of learning?”
The war cry of 21st century educator is that students be content creators. While I agree with this, we must be careful not to sacrifice quality before fully embracing digital learning platforms like blogs and wikis. The internet is so littered with poor quality writing, that we now have to teach students how to evaluate the reliability of their source, rate for bias, and check sources.

Depending on where you are with blogging in your classroom, consider these tips to make student blogging more meaningful, more creative, and more fun.

How do we use blogs to compliment classroom activities and serve as a portfolio of learning?

Tips for Quality Student Blogging

1. A Great Title

A good title is the first impression and “curb side” appeal that readers will look at before even clicking a post to be read. Often, titles are very uninspired with examples like “My Project Reflection”. If you’re having blogs visible on a feed within your schools website, you wouldn’t want 100 students all with the same title anyways. The writing skill of “summarizing” is so handy here and consider using this as a method for making an original title. Titles can be questions as well, with engaging hooks to draw in a reader.

2. Media

Embedding media can be a chore, but any piece of text is spiced up with videos and images that connect the writing to tangible examples. One thing I like to do is take images and videos of students doing activities which I then make available on our server. Our school has a Flickr, Picassa, and Youtube site that I can upload images to so students may include media of themselves in their post. As my students evolve into high school, they’ll have a digital record of themselves doing experiments back in middle school. I can’t remember a single thing I did back in middle school and have no pictures for reference!

3. Voice

I find that teaching a writers “voice” is difficult, but one that blogs are so good for. For science, I try to teach an objective voice as students analyze their conclusions. However, a language arts teacher after having read Huck Finn or Holden Caufield may ask students to write a piece as if they themselves were the protagonists. Changing the voice of the writing will also make for a fresh activity as students are challenged to try and emulate the point of view of a villain, hero, victim, perpetrator, loner, butterfly, champion or has-been.

4. Tags and Categories

Make sure your students tag their post with a half dozen tag words or phrases. It will make it easier to find through a key-word search. If you feel a little self-indulgent, you might also have students tag your name (the teacher) if students are doing a project within a curriculum for which you are responsible.

5. Punctuation and Grammar

This is an easy one to overlook. But when the nitty gritty details of punctuation are sacrificed, a piece starts to look a bit low-brow. Seriously, don’t we tend to lose respect for writers that don’t know how to capitalize? Don’t be in such a rush to have students publish a writing piece. Peer editing and review of drafts before final publication is just as applicable to blogging as it is to writers workshop or preparing a final draft. It’s OK to have posts in a “draft” stage.

6. Staff Teaming for All The Above

Our teams have recently started allocating our meeting time to improve the quality of student blogging. Most teachers use them here and there, but usually for summative projects. We have found that revisiting their use allows us to share successes, negotiate pitfalls and incorporate writing traits across the curriculum. Even as a math and science teacher, I find opportunities to support the language arts teachers by addressing and honing writing traits such as summarizing, paragraphing and organization, varying sentence fluency, and incorporating dynamic, engaging words. Simply taking a few minutes to share what is on the language arts agenda this week at your next team meeting can give teaching teams common purpose and collective buy in.

Wherever you or your school is with student blogging, it use certainly merits some time for deprivatization within your school or team. Teachers are starting to do some collaborative things with blogs, such as asking for comments through social media sites such as Ning and Edmodo and having students grow their readership and site visitors through Twitter.
The bottom line, is that students can now write for the entire world, not just their classroom or hallway bulletin board. If students can now have the world read their writing, shouldn’t we help them write for the world?

Image courtesy of Flickr, Oxymoronical.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

App Review: Algebra Touch

I just came along a great app for the middle school math teacher. Algebra Touch is great way to help students learning properties of math. It's a little skill and drill-ish, but offers some descriptions behind number operations.

For example, when I work with negative numbers, some of my students wonder why you might add or subtract numbers in a give situation. Also, they wonder why some things cancel, and some don't. Why are these "like terms" and these "unlike terms"?

The drop down menu of skills is great and already I've utilized the app for students that struggle with a particular skill set.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Can We Teach Creativity?

A few weeks ago, I read a post that haunted me. Scott McLeod wrote on his blog-Dangerously! Irrelevant a post entitled "My Son is 8. He's a maker". The point the a author was trying to make was that his son is very creative at home and that schools don't foster and propel this creativity to creative pursuits in the confines of the current educational structure.

Rethinking the Role of Schools
If someone sends their child to an institution, it must be implied that they are sending them there to acquire the skills, knowledge and everything after that that institution provides. There is an enormous amount of adaptability, and what is now changing is question of who should adapt. Traditional thinking may support that students have to meet the expectations of their teachers in order to learn responsibility, but in the last few decades, teachers are now differentiating instruction based readiness, process or product output. It's difficult to comprehend the preparation of differentiated instruction for 20 different students and there is such a vast chasm between truly effective differentiated instruction that supports educational goals and surface level trendiness.

Allowing Students To Be Creative
With new clubs and online collaboration, I think that schools and teachers can give opportunities to be creative. Sir Ken Robinson talks at great length about the importance of creativity and how we as schools need to strive to fan its flame. However, creativity is a difficult thing. Namely:
  1. In a system that tries to quantify outputs into statistical measures, how do we measure creativity?
  2. Can creativity be taught?
  3. Do we gradually become less creative as we adapt to the expectations of current systems?

I struggle with all these questions. After a unit on Physics and Simple Machines, I had some time to encourage students to make a Rube Goldberg Machine which is an enormously complicated device designed to do a very simple task. We watched Adam Sandowsky's TED talk on how he was hired by the band "OK Go" to make a Rube Goldberg machine for a new song of theirs. My experience in seeing Rube Goldberg devices is that teachers say: "Ok kids, you have to use all the simple machines as part of this project", but this doesn't capture the math behind how machines make work easier. Our earlier lab eliminated this need and it gave me and the students some time to "Geek Out" with creativity.

Is Creativity Merely a Remix?
As we designed our machines I had the chance to brainstorm with the class where we get our ideas from. I showed them Kirby Fergeson's "Every thing is a Remix" which supports the notion that the seed of creativity comes from the present as we look at old things in new ways. From this perspective, everything is a remix with a % of something old and a % of something new. I asked my students to reflect on this and postulate what % of their Rube Goldberg was "original" and what was "remixed". See the example below. Sorry for all the hijinks and shaky camera work!

Blending Creativity into Education
I think what I cherish most in the video above is how excited students were about this process. We talked alot about failure (as we often do in science) and the need for persistance. Although all groups were not successful in building their devices in our alloted time, they collectivly helped each other to become more determined, more driven and more invested. Imagine if we can create opportunities like this for students to engineer other devices, start clubs, advocate for global issues, and stand up.

Creativity may be an unseen factor, but I think it's something we hope all our students will see.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Designing Assessment Using The Power of Google Forms

This article first appeared in Fractus Learning. January 21st, 2003.

Michael Schmoker talks at great length in his book “Results Now“, of how the power of a common curriculum, common assessments and teachers working together can have unprecedented results in student learning. He cites many studies wherein teachers who seemingly taught the same class had varying levels of effectiveness, mostly through lack of their planning lessons and not designing assessments together, nor collecting data on a regular basis.

Google Forms as a Tool for Designing Assessment

Before I explain how teachers can use Google Forms as an assessment tool, I want to address their use from the standpoint of understanding and measuring student learning because that is ultimately the focus of all teachers. Despite many educators having been taught how to assess in undergraduate and graduate programs, I am amazed at how infrequently some teachers take the time to assess student learning in their classroom. The most common excuses are “This is a work in progress” or “This shouldn’t be graded” are points to consider, but even through process or project-based learning can teachers regularly measure whether lesson objectives have been met and ensure against disaster down the road. Many think that “magically” students will show and in-depth understanding of a topic by unit’s end, but don’t take time for those periodic check ins as formative assessments which are so crucial. Such information gives individuals and teams:
  1. Insight into what lesson objectives have been met
  2. Data on which topics the class understood well, or poorly as a population
  3. Information about which teacher may have taught a benchmark more effectively and thus in turn share their strategies with team members

Adapting Google Forms to your Learning Goals

Google Forms are essentially a survey tool wherein teachers can draft questions, whose answers can be collated and analyzed. Question types are text, paragraph text, multiple choice, checkboxes, choose from a list, scale and grid. The type of question that you choose should correspond to a learning target as outlined below:
Table adapted by Rick Stiggins
Table adapted by Rick Stiggins
Translating these learning targets into questions on Google Forms may look as follows:
Knowledge-Select Response, Check boxes, Chose from a list
Reasoning-Text, Grid, Scale,
Skills-Paragraph Text

Examples of Google Forms Data

Below is a sample of some exit interview data after a lesson on exponents:
Data as information
Data as information
Early in this unit, I chose multiple choice questions as I wanted to focus on a knowledge and skills target with less reasoning. What I learned from this particular exit interview was that my students bombed the second question which gave me some real insight into why they did so poorly and suggested some remediation for the next lesson.

The next example is a entry interview. This is good for those of you who favor a flipped classroom model and want to know how prepared students are when they walk into class:
Entry interview reasoning targets
Entry interview reasoning targets
For this I used a short answer text response as I wanted to see whether students understood some of the deeper reasoning from the independent assignment. There are also some great tools from Google’s script gallery that give analytics on questions and grade them for you. See an example of “flubaroo” here. Such data gives teams insight into some of the deeper understandings we hope to engender.

Time Efficiency

Google Forms allows teachers to collect information quickly and effectively which is what  the goal should be for utilizing new technology in the classroom. Rather than illegible entry or exit slips, Google Forms allow teachers to know exactly what their students know at the beginning and end of a lesson. In an age where many educator’s goals seem to be merely “I want to use more technology in my classroom” this goal fails to link how the uses of technology will improve student learning. Google Forms have real applications if utilized well and frequently.

How are you designing assessment in innovative and more efficient ways? Share your ideas below in the comments!

Image courtesy of Flickr, albertogp123