Monitoring Learner Progress

This post was written at the #idea13 Conference – MCG – 12/11/2013

George Araya, from the Desert Sands Unified Schools District in California, talked about supporting student progress with assessment data, but he started by talking about culture. He talked about changing culture by changing tools (for teachers) in this order:

  • first they were given email
  • then to an online gradebook
  • thenk smart slates (linked to electronic whiteboards)
  • then (clicker type) responders
  • then online testing and online assessment

He was very big on standardisation, of moving teachers from basic tools to more advanced tools. Students have Chromebooks and the District had developed a ‘private cloud’. They developed a learning platform focused on measurement and assessment, and gives teachers instant feedback, mostly with teachers preparing assessments and students responding (using clickers called ‘Renaissance Responders’) and getting immediate feedback which is published for parents. Tests are easy to do, efficient, and weekly. Yes. Weekly. The principle is constant assessment and instant, live data.

He talked about using ‘intelligent forms’ to observe teacher performance, and some arguments he had with unions about this. I bet.

He also argued for Chromebooks (they’d just ordered 7000, standardised and cloud based for the whole district) He said that they could run 15000 Chromebooks with one person. It seemed that the Chromebooks stayed in the classroom and students logged into it when they came into the classroom and logged out when they left.

He concluded with a big table of test scores and the great improvements in the test scores.

I was a bit critical. Thinking something like ‘typical American over-testing’ fuelled by by my respect for educators like Will Richardson ( who have pointed out the great divide between what American school systems say (we want great education like Finland) and what they do (test, test, test..) I even tweeted:



They had the tweets on the big screen, and all around the room the twitter stream with the conference hastag #idea13 kept rolling on through. When mine popped up, I saw George looking up at the screen for a long time, reading it, and I felt bad. I mean, he had come all the way from California to tell us about what they were doing, how they were changing culture and raising test scores and I was sceptical and a bit dismissive. And me, from a well resourced school with 99% of students achieving at or above national or state literacy and numeracy benchmarks, and him from a district with huge issues of poverty and second language. Maybe testing was the right thing for them. It sounded like a deadening experience for teachers and students (and he admitted issues with some teacher unions) but maybe I shouldn’t have been so smug and quick to judge.


Ipad or notebook as a classroom tool?

Will the classroom notebook computer go the way of the Dodo! (I know, lame link!)

One of the things I been pondering over likely is whether the iPad can really be a replacement for the notebook computer as the default classroom device. I’ve taught in a one-to-one laptop program for over 15 years now and I that I can’t imagine teaching any other way. And perhaps that’s my problem, that I can’t imagine what a different model might look like. A model without a keyboard.

But when I really think about, how often are my students, even the senior students, writing long pieces in class? Mostly, they are note taking in OneNote and writing their longer pieces at home. And the iPad will handle that just fine.

Yesterday, I joined a colleague to do some writing and I didn’t take my laptop. One, my laptop is clunky, heavy, overheats, has a battery life of about an hour and is just so far removed from being an enjoyable experience that it’s not funny. Secondly, I wanted to see whether I could do some decent writing on the iPad.

So, I packed my iPad, a Bluetooth keyboard and left the laptop at home. I wrote in Evernote, not because that’s a particularly good experience, but I knew it was automatically syncing with a shared folder in dropbox. We were revising a textbook for the new edition so every revision became a new note. I used an app called Popplet to do some simple mind maps and annotate some news photographs. I wasn’t writing anything really long but I hardly missed the laptop, maybe just the full-size keyboard.

Could I write a whole new book on the iPad? I doubt it. And it wouldn’t be a very pleasant experience if I tried. But could the iPad be the device during the day, the lightweight device with 10 hour battery life, instant on and a highly personalised personal productivity tool? I think it could. I never want to be without a “real” computer. It’s not the post-PC age for me. But more and more I’m thinking that the real computer might be a powerful desktop computer at home and the travelling computer an iPad.

I’ve changed a bit in my thinking about this. About a year ago I blogged that I didn’t think the iPad was good enough for senior students. I still think that senior students deserve the best tool possible, it’s just that I’m finding that the iPad is a more powerful tool than I thought

(Dictated to Dragon express, Photo by Warrick, of new iPad case I got for my birthday)

The Ipad Phenonemon

More and more schools are adopting the Ipad as their preferred 1-1 tool going forward, some in the Ipad trolley model I talked about earlier and some taking the decision to replace their traditional (how funny that sounds now) notebook program with an Ipad 1-1 program. It seems to be particularly happening in Queensland for some reason, whereas I think Victoria has formerly led the way in Australia with 1-1 notebook programs.

Redlands College has an Ipad portal, and there’s a detailed blog post here about their thinking on this.  I like the detail and depth of the thinking and that they’re clearly not simply following this as the latest fad, but see key advantages in this approach. It sound careful and logical and structured; and that’s how change and innovation should be managed.

Innovation, the digital revolution and education

Mark Whittard (Toshiba Information Systems) opened up Expanding Horizons on the last morning.

It’s hard for a hardware manufacturer to have something meaningful to say about education; even Apple struggle with that. And Mark Whittard mentioned as much when he began his keynote.

We got a potted history of Toshiba and their history (130 years!) and their diversity. He claims that Toshiba invented the double coil electric light bulb in 1921 and flash memory in 1984.

Whittard talked about some of the coming innovations: fuel cells in 2009, fast-charging (super charge) batteries and their commitment to environmental values, becoming the ‘greenest computer supplier’ this year.

One interesting thing was that over 80% of the education market were now ordering the tablet pc now; which is higher than I though and promising in terms of the kinds of education specific.

He talked about, and then talked down, the new small computers and said they weren’t recommended for the education market. I’ve talked about the ASSUS(?) and that kind of thing before; I’ve love to have one for travelling, but I couldn’t last long without a full blown machine I don’t think.

I liked Bruce Dixon’s closing bit here too, talking about the original conceptualisation of the notebook computer as a tool for education, or as one early notebook computer put it, as ‘an instrument, whose music is ideas’.

The Tablet PC Journey

I realised this week that I hadn’t talked much here about one of the most significant technology changes we’ve made for students this year, that is moving to the tablet pc format for the notebook computers at our school.

A group of teachers, including me, trialled tablet pcs over the last year and have found them really useful. I still do most of my work via the keyboard but having the tablet pc functionality is great. This year all the new computers in the College were Toshiba Portege Tablets and apart from some issues with an over-high resoution that makes type incredibly small, they’ve begun very well.

Unfortunately, the class I’m teaching (Year 12 English) don’t have the new computers. They’re in their third year of the Fujitsu Lifebook they got in Year 10, and some of them are aging. A hard drive died in class on Friday, and that brought everyone in the class to that awareness about backing up!

Still, all the students did get the new verson of Office, so I’ve been pushing OneNote with them a lot, and they’re beginning to see how useful it is to organise notes, and how much better it is than having a folder full of word files. And, I’ve been able to use my tablet, plugged into the data projector, to handwrite on OneNote screens, and ink on PowerPoints, which is good fun.

I should mention that, while it’s been in the blogroll for ages, I did create a tablet pc wiki which chronicles some of our thinking and exploring with this format. And I must remember to post here what we discover this year as we go on.

Teacher Tech and Productivity

An interesting non-edublog post from a high school maths teacher talking about technology, productivity and what software schools should be supporting teachers with. There are a lot of comments and suggestions at the end of the post too. The post describes the multi-pronged problem as:

I have found it increasingly annoying to hear from on high that we need to integrate more technology in our classroom, yet most new teachers and old teachers are still using old standbys because we don’t have the time to use and troubleshoot our way through technology. Making worksheets by copying and pasting by hand. Building test questions from book programs that only work on PCs or OS 9 on macs. Wanting to use videos from the internet only to find they are blocked. Wanting to post information to a website or build my own website to find that FTP is blocked or that online-services are clunky, restrictive, and cumbersome. Granted that I am lucky enough to have a computer, a projector, and an ELMO (videocamera hookup to a projector.) But for the love of turtles! It seems that the industry ignores us!

The rest of the post, and replies HERE

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Tablet PCs in the classroom

Funny how you can be using a tool in the classroom, which was startling and new and fresh a couple of years ago, but then over time just becomes somehow normal and unremarkable. I suppose that’s what good tools do; become part of good practice. So I was in some meetings this week planning some professional development for teachers about to get a tablet pc for the first time and realised I hadn’t blogged about the tablet PC experience for a long time.

I’ve just finished my second year of using the tablet PC in my teaching and daily work, and next year all new staff and student computers will be tablets. They’ve been a real success, so I thought I’d spent a bit of time here reflecting on that, and what we’ve learned.

For some staff and students the fact that you can write and draw directly into documents makes no difference. For others, it’s very empowering. I’m a good typist so I found that 80% of the time I was continuing to type just as I always did. But there were times when the tablet functionality was great.

As a teacher I could correct and mark essays student had submitted online pretty much exactly as I could with pen and paper. Except these essays were submitted online, downloaded by me and corrected with the stylus and given back to the students with no paper used in the whole process. Better than that, both the students and I had copies of the annotated work and I could refer to it at parent-teacher-student conferences, or in writing my reports.

I could also use the table in the classroom, displaying the screen on the data projector. I’ve done that for a while, tending to use PowerPoint and more recently OneNote to capture student discussions and display them at the same time. Rather than using the whiteboard and noting down student points, which everyone had to write down or they’d be lost, I took those points down in PowerPoint, and then emailed the .ppt file to the class after the lesson. With the tablet I could use the stylus to take these notes, or even better get some students to take notes. There’s no need for them to have any typing prowess and they enjoy it.

In meetings, especially small formal-ish meetings around a board table, I found that folding the tablet flat and making notes with a stylus was much more comfortable and less intimidating and distracting than dividing us all and hiding behind a screen. I take my meeting notes in OneNote, and if there’s a meeting agenda that’s been sent around, I send it to OneNote via the printer driver, and simply annotate the points, circling, drawing, underlining and even doodling, just like I used to in meetings before. This time, however, I don’t’ end up with hundreds of un-searchable, unfindable scraps of paper, but all the notes easily accessible, forever. The same applies for conferences; you can hold the tablet folded and it’s no bigger than an A4 page and you can take notes in smaller spaces than the unfolded notebook.

The applications I’ve used have been the normal ones; the Office applications with OneNote coming into its own with the inking facility. I like OneNote and would use it now tablet or not and I got my English students to use it this year to organise their English notes, and it worked well. There are some specific inking applications, Equation Writer and Flash Cards but haven’t used them all that much. One application that’s very handy is PDF Annotator, which allows you to ink on PDFS. It’s surprisingly useful.

The tablet PC software can often translate ink into typed text. Even my poor handwriting works most of the time. Funny though, in most cases if I’ve made ink notes they stay ink notes. I don’t take the time to convert them to typed text unless I want to share those notes with others.  For me, the ink functionality is for quick personal notes, plans, brainstorming or annotating documents for revision.

Other teachers have found other uses. Some teachers like the fact that you can draw diagrams, flow-charts, concept maps and sometimes just plain drawings, either as part of Office documents or stand alone visual documents. It’s a boon for some maths teachers who are often frustrated by the clunkiness of typing equations.

There are a couple of downsides. You can lose the stylus. They’re heavier and maybe slower than a similarly equipped vanilla notebook, and the screen isn’t that shiny glossy sheen that looks good when you play DVDS!

Still, after two years with this tool, which does everything a normal notebook does, with the added features, I wouldn’t want to go back.

I’m excited what the students will do when they get their hands on it.

Tablet PCs across the Curriculum

I spent the day on Friday at an all-day professional development program, looking at the possibilities for tablet pcs in k-12 schools.

It was good to be re-inspired again about the potential of this technology as I watched classes using programs like Art Rage and OneNote as part of their normal school work. After almost a year of using a tablet PC I don’t think I’d want to go back to a standard notebook and while lots of students told me they still mostly typed things using a keyboard, the potential for visual input, for concept mapping, for note-taking, for adding another kind of input, is enormous.