Tuesday, January 10, 2017

First SnoGo Days, and Eminence's EdHub

Welcome back from the holidays!  We had our first significant snow last week, so Thursday and Friday (January 5 and 6) became our first official and inaugural SnoGo days!

For the uninitiated, "SnoGo Days" are non-traditional instructional days, where students work at home on material prepared in advance by teachers.  It's the enactment of our philosophy that learning never stops and continues beyond the boundaries of a brick and mortar building. The teachers also remain in contact with students via email, phone, messages via Schoology, and more.  Speaking of Schoology, our LMS was a crucial tool to organize work and accept submissions during SnoGo . . . and students definitely used it.  Here's a way to compare just how much: during the week before winter break, our most active Schoology usage day inside our buildings was December 13 with 45,591 Schoology page views.  On January 5 and 6, we had 79,046 and 75,929 views, respectively.  I should point out that teachers certainly could give students a menu of optional offline work, and just as they would for an excused absence, students have a small window to make up work upon their return.  We don't want lack of Internet access at home to limit their SnoGo learning!

Our SnoGo caught the attention of two local newstations.  WHAS 11 discussed the non-traditional nature of the learning.   WAVE 3 talked to the Leonberger family, and got this great quote from eighth grader Jake: "I think it's really cool they gave us these Chromebooks and made SnoGo a thing. It makes it so kids can pace themselves at home."  (Add a path of learning and factor in the choice of when to do the work, and you have our 3PT program.)  Both stories include video with some helpful visuals of Schoology at work.

And learning didn't stop with students.  Lora Shields (our Shelby Staff Developer) and I created modules in -- what else? -- Schoology, in order for classified staff to have professional development online during SnoGo.

Several teachers, principals and students tweeted throughout our SnoGo, but this is probably my favorite:

On Day Two of SnoGo, I took an already scheduled trip over to a nearby neighboring school: Eminence.  I've been wanting to see their library expansion, named the EdHub, since it opened at the beginning of the school year.  Along with SCHS's librarian Julie Webb, we got the grand tour.   Here are some of my social media posts:

I particularly like the picture in the last tweet of the Scantron sheet and pencil, an archaic artifact of the past, enshrined in a museum case for future students to puzzle its ancient purpose and use.

We left with some great inspiration on how to better utilize our own libraries and increase our makerspace opportunities.  Thanks to the EdHub Director and secondary librarian James Allen for being a gracious host!

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hour of Code 2016

It's that time of year again!  Shelby County just experienced another week of #HourOfCode (Dec. 5 - 9).  Our previous years had memorable milestones, but one thing I could see differently this year was how many of our librarians took a lead in getting students excited about coding.   (For this, I have to give props to Sarah Price at Wright Elementary for setting a high bar last year.)

I asked for Shelby County librarians to share their 2016 coding stories via email.  Here are some of their responses (slightly edited):

Penny Bland, Heritage Elementary:

Renae Orange, East Middle: "I have a personalized learning class I teach.  We spent our time yesterday coding at code.org.  Some of my students are exploring how to take what they learned to build a robot and program it."

Vicki Stoltz, Clear Creek Elementary: "I am introducing a few unplugged lessons for my K-1 classes with 4 little Bee Bots and some floor mats [see the video below].  Dash has also been a big hit with the older kids.  Second through Fifth Grade students have been exploring bookmarked coding sites as well."


Jennifer Tinsley, Painted Stone Elementary:  "The prior week, we discussed coding vocabulary and did a little intro with Angry Birds from the Code.org website.   On Hour of Code week, we used mainly Angry Birds and Star Wars.  So far so good!  I've even heard from several students 'I want to do this at home'!"

Sarah Price, Wright Elementary: "Everybody is coding in the library all week long on activities found on Code.org (Star Wars, Minecraft, Angry Birds) as well as iPad apps such as Kodable with our kindergarteners.  I set up folders inside a Schoology Course with grade-appropriate choices to help them narrow down which program to click.  I have been using a few fifth grade volunteers to help with the K-1 classes, and that has been working very well.  Having the high school volunteers was nice last year, but I think it is even nicer to be using our own student leaders."

Of course, our teachers independently did their share of coding as well.  Tina Eden (East Middle) tweeted out:

What better way to end than to share a tweet from Matthew Watts from Collins High School:

That is our hope for Riley and others: that the coding we start at school becomes a passion they want to do at home and beyond.

Thanks to all who encourage their students and children to code, last week and every week!

Friday, December 2, 2016

PPBBL: Personalized Project-Based Blended Learning

Greetings, readers!  I never meant to take two months off, but we've been a busy county.  Our elementary rollout is complete, and we are now a 1:1 device district (iPads for Kindergarteners, Chromebooks for the rest).    I am spending a goodly amount of embedded time at our elementary schools to support our staff as they continue the transformation into digital classrooms.  Lately, as part of that work, I've been reflecting quite a bit on three educational strands that are strong on the radar of Shelby County and are current hot topics across the world: blended learning, project-based learning, and personalized learning.  This musing has lead to some questions of how and when these models are applied in classrooms.   (Note that these questions are not meant to imply critiques of Shelby classrooms specifically.  Instead, they are "thinkalouds" of how and when blended, PBL and personalized learning are generally utilized.)

BLENDED LEARNING:  As I discussed in a previous post, I'm a fan of Michael B. Horn and Heather Straker's definition as given in their book Blended"Blended learning is any formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”  One of the reasons I like this definition is that the end of it dovetails nicely into personalized learning itself (which if done in the absence of technology would be very difficult).  But it's important to not forget what is actually being blended: online digital tools with human interaction and instruction, usually in a brick and mortar school.  Both components, in a good balance, is necessary.  Content may be delivered digitally in an innovative way, but it is the teachers' roles in nurturing, nudging, and knowing where their students academically stand that make them an integral face-to-face resource.

Do we sometimes concentrate too much on the digital tool and not on the analog teacher or desired outcomes?

PERSONALIZED LEARNING:  This school year, one of Shelby's grass-roots and teacher-led efforts of innovation (encouraged and supported by John Leeper) is happening at several of our elementary and both high schools: 3PT classroom cadres.  Pilot groups of students in each building are exerting control over the path, place, pace and/or time of their personalized learning.  Ideally, your passions and your post-school plans should affect your educational journey and give you options.  Digital tools certainly make it easier to access content, assess mastery, and track progress; with a laptop and wifi, you can do your reading in a school's bean bag chair just as easily as your kitchen table at night.  To that end, I have been heavily involved in supporting tool integration to help the program hum along, such as Edgenuity (which contains coursework monitored and customized by teachers to deliver content) and Schoology (a learning management system that contains teacher and district curriculum, folders of links and resources, and assessment tools).  In 3PT, bell schedules and even chronological age differences fade away from the real focus: learning that is flexibly paced and about mastery, not compliance or seat-time.   (To see pictures and follow tweets about our district's 3PT stories, see #3PTSC; there is some awesome work going on out there.)   It should be noted that unlike differentiation or individualization, only personalization is student-centered.   However, we again must be vigilant for balance.  We risk impersonalized learning if this model leads to teenage cubicle drones, pecking in isolation at their laptops. Students should have a chance for discourse with their peers; teacher conferences and whole/small group instruction still needs to be a vital part of student learning.

How often do we concentrate on content delivery over student dialogue and groupwork?  Does technology enable an increase in both the quantity and the quality of teachers conferring face-to-face with students?

PROJECT-BASED LEARNING:  Since participating in PD on PBL in the summer of 2015, I have been excited about the ways it can combine personal student interest with relevant work that seeks to elevate or solve real-world problems, publishing or presenting to authentic audiences.   It is often collaborative and done by groups of students. The danger is that PBL could be seen as "one more thing" instead of a model that can integrate seamlessly with both personalized and blended learning.

How can PBL be brought more systematically into a personalized, blended learning environment?

Why I won't claim to have solutions to all of these questions, a few resources on the internet might point us in the right direction.

This resource and graphic from The Learning Accelerator is perhaps my favorite visual on blended learning.   What I appreciate is how it goes beyond a definition and concentrates on what blended learning can help you enable and accomplish.  Most importantly, blended learning should empower educators to make sure every graduate "attains the skills and mindset needed to succeed in college and life (academics + habits/character)."

Note: this graphic is part of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Lately, educators are buzzing about Summit Learning, who recently has released a free digital learning platform, which includes a core content curriculum for personalized learning.   While the tool itself is fascinating, I am more intrigued by their school philosophy: content delivery should be only as important as the application of cognitive skills in the form of PBL work.  In a recent introductory webinar (visit their site for upcoming events), they shared the following example of a Summit school week:

Screen captured from an archived webinar, linked here.

Look how many slots are appropriated to PBL, in comparison to content acquisition time!  In addition, mentor time is scheduled and guaranteed at least every Friday.   While this may not be the perfect model, it does reveal how important authentic application of knowledge is to the Summit vision of learning, and shows how blended, personalized and PBL can weave together like a well-made rope.

Like any well-woven rope in education (he says with a tongue placed firmly in his cheek), an acronym is necessary for naming.  The significance of calling this balanced system PPBBL is even built into the order of the letters.  Personalization is the first priority and therefore the first letter; leading by student needs and interests quite naturally segues into project-based work; blended is the way to make it all work effectively and engagingly.  And learning should be the last word -- the point, purpose and result of these transformative models of education.

So we will keep pushing ourselves with our questions -- reflecting, refining, reinventing what it means to be in a classroom, or to be a student, or to be a teacher.   

[Note:  part of the inspiration for this entry came from my work with one of our district Instructional Coaches, Melba Bradley.  As we recently planned a PD session on blended learning for a teacher personalized learning day, we discussed how PBL needed to be a stronger component of a blended learning classroom, and the first version of this entry's mashup acronym was born.]

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

My One Hundredth Blog Entry!

A little over two years ago, I started a journey into the unknown at Shelby County Public Schools.  I left teaching in a high school classroom in order to pursue a passion of mine -- educational technology -- and for a leadership opportunity to positively affect a large number of students and teachers on a scale I couldn't imagine previously, in a position that was brand new to the district.  Not counting some false starts before, it was also the first time I seriously attempted to professionally blog.  In my first entry for Edtech Elixirs (dated August 1, 2014), I wrote that I was "committed to making meaningful and ongoing posts, but most importantly, making my blog a useful resource for others."

Others will have to judge if my posts are useful or meaningful.   However, as I write this entry -- the one hundredth post since I started Edtech Elixirs -- I can at least affirm that the posts have been "ongoing" in ways that I couldn't imagine in 2014.  My output has slowed down this school year, but my overall average is nearly a blog entry a week.  And I was worried I would run out of things to share and say!

Let's stop this entry cold so I can recognize and thank you, the readers.  Numbers aren't everything, but they certainly point out that many of you stop by my various social media sites.  Back in June of 2015, I wrote an entry summarizing the reach of Edtech Elixirs to that point.  At that time, I had cleared 10,000 total views when the blog was not quite a year old, much to my astonishment.  As of this writing, I am a few clicks shy of clearing 37,000.   In the same blog entry, I discussed my social media stats, and again, it's hard to believe what a difference nearly 16 months makes.  I'll just point out two examples.  I had nearly 800 Followers on Twitter and over 3,300 tweets in June 2015.  I now have 1,466 Followers and 5,119 tweets.  On my Watsonedtech YouTube channel in June 2015, I had just over 6,000 views, the highest number going to Adjusting your Lenovo Yoga Microphone (1709) and How to Use Plickers (Part One) (2364).  Sixteen months later, the channel has 55,489 total views with 18,238 views on the "Adjusting..." video and 22,292 views for "Plickers."

But back to the blog.  Here are my top 10 most popular entries of all time (ranked by number of individual direct views as of today).

  1. Lenovo Yoga: Fixing your Audio for HDMI Connection (2/5/15, with 5257 views).  Back in June 2015, this was only the third most popular entry with 417 views.  Now it is by far the most clicked.  Apparently, between this and my entry on adjusting the microphone, many people are Googling for help on their Lenovo Yoga.
  2. The Power of Positive Social Media #StartsWithUs (10/16/14, with 1040 views).  Started with a hashtag and clothespins in a St. Louis school, I shared this powerful story of how social media can be utilized to make a positive difference.  One of my favorite entries.
  3. Rose/Bud/Thorn and Design Thinking (4/29/15, with 976 views).  A great reflective strategy for students that I found and shared, along with a short overview of what Design Thinking is.
  4. Why Chromebooks? (8/22/15, with 685 views).  Probably popular if found when people Google "Why Should I Buy a Chromebook?"  I lay out some reasons why a Chromebook is a solid device, and how it fits with our district's philosophy and overall academic plan.
  5. How I Spent My Summer Vacation 2015 (8/7/15 with 683 views).  Only a few clicks shy of fourth place,  I am perplexed how this made the top 5, much less the top 20 or 50.  Perhaps because I talked about EdcampKY, Mooresville (NC) and our own district personalized PD in one entry?  Maybe it's a Google-able mother lode.
  6. Flubaroo, Doctopus and Goobric (5/27/15 with 566 views).   Three highly useful Google tools you can creatively integrate into student assessment and learning.
  7. Game-Based Learning and Classcraft (1/12/15 with 534 views).  A primer on game-based learning and gamification in the classroom, an overview of Classcraft, and an interview with Collins High School teacher Tim Oltman.  A bit overstuffed, but like #5, its popularity may come from showing up in different types of Google searches.
  8. PBL and Eusessments (7/1/15 with 467 views).  Is "assessment" a bad word? How does PBL work, and can lead to "good products" that truly demonstrate student understanding?
  9. Makerspaces (12/1/15 with 419 views).  Besides an explanation of what a makerspace is, it contains a link to a Google Doc occasionally updated by myself and our district librarians; it is full of various makerspace resources.  In addition, the entry has an interview with Heidi Nelt, who recently was named the 2016 KASL School Librarian of the Year!
  10. Garlic Necklace, Not a Silver Bullet (5/14/15 with 381 views).   There is no such thing as one device that fits all needs...and that's a good thing.  I discuss a possible alternative way of thinking about and integrating technology in a classroom, school or district.
I want to again thank Shelby County for giving me this opportunity to help teachers and students, and for every reader that has ever clicked on one of my blog entries, tweets or videos!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


The ultimate goal of technology in the classroom should be making teaching and learning happen in ways that you never thought possible.  One of those areas transformed by edtech is formative assessment. Nowadays,  there are many tools at a teacher's disposal where you can check a student's understanding quickly and in an engaging way.    But what if you want to expand past gathering multiple choice and short text answers?   What if a tool could capture understanding beyond the typical literacy demonstration of written words?

A few years ago, I discovered and wrote about Flipgrid, a student video response system.  Teachers could pose a question in a "grid," and students (via a webcam) could record a response within the website.  It was as easy as going to the URL and clicking a plus button.  In the time since, Flipgrid has improved the tool -- for example, you can now respond directly to someone else's response, creating a thread of digital discourse -- but there are downsides, mainly the fact that it is not free.  (There were also numerous browser conflicts where Flipgrid didn't work, but in the two years since I originally reviewed it, I'm assuming those are now fixed.)  Several of our Shelby teachers used Flipgrid and gave it praise. For a time, in the nascent assortment of student video response tools out there, Flipgrid had few competitors.

Until now.

Thanks to a recent Google+ post by Christy Cate, I have found another tool that is just as easy to use, will work across multiple devices (including Chromebooks and via Android and iOS apps), and best of all, it is free!  Folks, welcome to Recap, brought to you by the same people behind Swivl.

How does it work?  Register using your email or Google account.  (It's important that you choose "teacher" during initial registration, even if you play the student to other people's recaps in the future.)  Your account will come with a demo class to give you an opportunity to play with Recap's features, but adding a new class is easy.  Once you do, you are faced with two options for students to log in for your class: via a class pin directly, or via their email/Google account.  The pin might be best for younger students, as the graphic below explains:

Note that the login setup is permanent for that particular class.  If you choose the direct class pin option, you can add students manually, but you must do so individually.

Next, you can create a recap.  One of Recap's helpful features is that you can make one assignment/recap around a certain theme or topic, but you can have up to 10 questions per recap.

Once students are in the class, they can choose to answer a recap.  Recap will then stop and prompt the student at each question, recording their answer before moving on to the next question.   At the end of the process, the student can also let the teacher know whether "They Got It," "Partially Got It," or "Didn't Get It."  Students can also view other students' responses. Although the teacher can give some text feedback to individual responses, students cannot leave feedback for each other, nor can they respond in video form to another student response.

The teacher's dashboard allows them to see all the student's responses individually, as well as a graphical representation of the "got it" reflections.  A final intriguing feature is the "Daily Review Reel," where randomly picked responses from some (but not all) of the students are edited together with some nice framing graphics.  This video can be shared with others, outside of the Recap website.

The teacher dashboard from the demo class.

This video gives a quick overview of Recap in less than a minute:

One thing that is very impressive about Recap is its simplicity of use, from setup to teacher management to student response creation.  I can imagine it used at multiple grade levels and for multiple contents.

How could you use it?  Reflections on a completed project or test can be done quickly: What was hardest? What was easiest?  Did you feel you were overprepared, underprepared, or studied/worked just enough?   Summative assessments themselves might have an alternative in Recap, especially for ECE students with compositional difficulties or ELL students who may speak more proficiently than they write.  An exit or entrance slip via some Recap questions could give a teacher a much more rich and nuanced appreciation of what students know and understand. The "Daily Review Reel" would be a fantastic way to share your classroom work with parents or staff; as of now, it is automated, but fuller control of which responders/responses are included is coming soon (see below).

Downsides?  It would be nice to have the capability to quantitatively assess a student via a grade or a mastery of standards (as of now, the only "grading" is a student's self reflection on whether they "got it" or not, and the ability for a teacher to give written feedback), but that might also be too heavy for Recap's intended streamlined purpose.  I was pleased to see several improvements coming soon, such as a student being able to resubmit/redo a response.  If they ever are able to have students respond to each other (like they can in Flipgrid), this free tool will corner the market.

It's reassuring to see that developers intend to improve their tool; hopefully that means the site will stick around and mature.

Do you use Recap?  Flipgrid?  Another student video response system?  Post your thoughts in the Comments below.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Opening" a Microsoft File in Google Drive

One of the best things about Google Drive is the ability to create various kinds of files in an online environment.  We should not forget, however, that Google Drive is also very convenient cloud-based storage (especially Google Apps for Education, which has nearly unlimited space).

Usually, first time Google Drive / GAFE teachers take advantage of this storage aspect first by uploading tons of their old files, particularly Microsoft ones. At face value, this is not a bad idea.  Once uploaded, so long as you are able to connect to the Internet, you are able to view, print or download them, even via an app on your smartphone.  The problem is how that leads to one of the most common misconceptions of Google users: the perceived ability to edit a Microsoft file inside of your Google Drive.

In short, you cannot edit a Microsoft Word (or any other MS file) inside of Google Drive.  Only a MS program can do that.  There is no way to connect Word or any other MS program directly to your Google Drive / Google Apps for Education.

When you click on a Microsoft document in your Google Drive, you will get an interface like this:

Note that unlike a typical Google document, you see this "viewer" window when you click on a MS file.
The blacked out left and right margin let you know you are not in a typical Google file interface.  Instead, this viewer window gives you several options, including sharing, downloading, and printing the file.  (Note also that the right side X gets you out of this viewer function.  If you choose the browser's back arrow button, you will actually go back one level in your Drive.)

The trouble begins when you choose the drop down "Open With" option:

You should always see a "Google equivalent" program first, followed by other possible apps that can open the file.

For example, suppose you click on a MS Word file.  If you "Open with Google Docs," you are not editing the original MS file, as many people mistakenly believe. What you are actually doing is essentially asking Google Drive to make a clone version of the MS file in the appropriate Google app; in this example, create a Google Doc version based on the Word file.  The original Word file is and will always be the same as when you uploaded it.  But now you have a "translated" Google Doc version that preserves much of the same formatting.  This new Google Doc could be what you use from that point forward to share and collaborate with colleagues.  However, every time you think you are “opening” the initial Word file online, you are actually making yet another Google Doc clone, and this could continue ad infinitum causing a lot of confusion.

So should you not upload your MS files into your Drive?   If you never did, you would waste the wonderful online storage space that Google gives you.  Instead, I recommend putting all of your old MS files into a separate archive folder away from your brand new Google Docs, Slides, etc.  If there is ever a time you need to do something beside viewing one of the MS files, you can make a Google version ONCE, then move the new Google file out of the archive folder to a new spot in your Drive so you don’t create confusion.  And of course, from this point forward . . . when you want to make a new document, presentation, or spreadsheet . . . start clean and begin with a fresh Google file!

One last point of clarification.  By default, your uploaded MS files will stay in their original format.  However, in your Drive settings (the gear icon on the right side below your profile icon), you can checkmark a box where uploaded MS files will automatically be converted into their Google equivalents.  While this may be handy if you want to mass convert much of what you're uploading, I recommend the default setting where this is turned off.  That way, you can decide which (if any) of your MS file should be converted, and for the sake of archiving, your uploads will remain in their original state, especially if you want to download them "as is" later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Organizing your Class: Schoology versus Google Drive

As our school year began, Glenda Price from East Middle School asked me a question.  Which is better to organize and distribute materials to students: Schoology or Google Drive?

I don't want to create a false dilemma here.  You can and should likely use both tools in your classroom.  It's really more of a question of determining your purpose and being intentional in your instructional choices.

That said, there are advantages and disadvantages for both tools.  This blog entry will break down how each tool could be used and the pros/cons.

(Note that although Google Classroom is a tool available for Google Apps for Education users, I am simplifying the discussion by omitting it here, mainly because the use of the enterprise edition of Schoology is what our district supports and encourages.)

If all students create Google folders and then share with all of their teachers, they will be likely have a very full email inbox with “shared with me” requests.  That said, there are several advantages: the students are the actual owners of their own class folders, teachers can organize these student folders as they like (by dragging and dropping them from "Shared with Me" to a preferred space in their Drive), and the teacher can save time from actually creating individual student folders.

Another option would be for students to create shared links with editing rights to their folders, and give teachers those links through a Google Form.  (Ask for their name, collect email addresses, and have a short answer question where they could paste in the URL.)  That way, a teacher has a Google Sheet with all the hyperlinks one click away. They could have a Form and Sheet for each class.  Bonus:  no “shared with me” notifications AND no dragging and dropping of folders.

You could have teachers create Folders (one per student), then share them with students.  That would be easier to MANAGE from the teacher side (teachers are obviously organizing as they create them), but it’s very time consuming….that’s a lot of folders to make!

Don’t forget how aspects of Schoology can make sharing and submission of work easier.  Do I really need shared Google folders I have to constantly check, or do I only need their Google Doc (or Slides or whatever) one assignment at a time?  If so, use Schoology Assignments.  Again, have students create a share link to the file, paste it in the “Create” tab when submitting the assignment, and voila — you can access each of them easily, and again, without all of the “Shared with Me’ notifications.

Distribute any Google documents using Schoology.  Paste the link in an Update, Assignment, or as part of a Schoology folder. If you need to distribute a “template” for them to edit and make their own, create a shared URL and use the copy trick…change the end of the link (everything after the last forward slash) to “copy.”  When they click the link, they automatically have to make their own copy.

Last but not least, don't forget that as part of your Materials in Schoology, you can "Add Media Album."   This is the only way to create a place in your Course where -- if enabled in the advanced settings -- you can have both students and teachers contribute media to a shared space.  For more directions and information, visit this Schoology support page.

Do you have other ways to electronically share or distribute material?  Post your thoughts in the Comments below.