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Saturday, November 18, 2017

To Tech or Not to Tech: Reflecting on Blended Learning for Young Students

The world of education is quickly becoming a digitized place, and for some, this can be unsettling. Parents, community members, teachers and even students sometimes lament the shift away from past instructional tools; recently, a high school freshman wrote an opinion piece titled "Public education should be less dependent on technology." At the end, she quips, "Technology may fail, but pencils and pens always work."

The debate is important to have for all grades, but in K-3 classrooms, this argument becomes nearly an emotional one. For our youngest students, the choice can seem agonizing. Do you fully engage them by recognizing their “real” life outside of school is constantly filtered through a digital lens, and an online workforce is their present and future?  Or do you make your classroom an analog haven where traditional materials -- actual books with paper pages, physical math manipulatives, Elmer’s Glue -- give the students a digital reprieve from hours of at-home screen time?

While I won't pretend that I can definitively solve this conundrum, I offer three steps to determine a way forward.

The first asks for hard reflection. You must consider how much bang for the buck you are currently getting for your traditional “this is the way I’ve always done it” approach.  Pencils and pens may never fail, but clearly across the United States, students do. Are your math and reading scores rising every year, or have they become stagnant or even declined?  On any given day, are students fully engaged and actively learning, or more distracted than ever and only passively receiving content?  If your current state tends toward the latter in both of those questions, recognize your present instruction is not having your expected impact, and change is necessary; you need to at least consider a different approach to teaching with additional or different (possibly digital) tools.

This is a good segue into the second step: analyze not how much you are using technology, but how you are using it. Just like any effective pedagogical tool, technology should enable students to be collaborative, creative, and critical thinkers. Two recent tweets (both of which reference TeachThought) shared to me by my colleague Lora Shields sum this point up nicely. The first uses side by side columns to show the difference between mere usage and intentional integration:

The second tweet looks at Bloom's Taxonomy verbs from a digital perspective. What are students doing with the tech? Clearly, the higher up the scale, the higher order the thinking:
The third step is to reject the either/or false dilemma nature of the question of "to tech or not to tech."  A modern classroom will likely have both digital and analog tools side by side, where technology usage is not seen as a “reward” or for a special hour on Friday.  It requires balance and moderation -- in short, a blended learning approach.  This can take time, a growth mindset, and patience.  It also requires moving the blended learning classroom from a "substitution" model -- where the pinnacle of achievement is merely digital flashcards and online dictionaries -- to a “redefinition” model where teaching is truly transformed and recentered . . . a place where students are exploring creativity, impacting their environment, and active reflectors of their own learning.

If you need to see a blended learning model, look no further than Jodie Collins and her kindergarten classroom at Wright Elementary. Ms. Collins (like all Shelby K students) has a 1:1 class set of iPads. After a recent visit, I knew she would be a great person to interview about the challenges and successes of integrating technology with our youngest students.
Ms. Collins, welcome to Edtech Elixirs!  Share your story. 
I began teaching in 2000. I taught Head Start. I finished my BA in Early Childhood Education in 2003 and continued with Head Start at Wright. In 2005 I began teaching Kindergarten here. I went to Georgetown and obtained my Masters in the Teacher Leader Program in Instructional Technology. Technology has always been a love of mine. I have always loved being innovative in my teaching. I started just by using technology in my classroom. I used to hear, “Oh, kindergarten students can’t use technology to learn.” Yes they can and they do! I do a lot of blog reading of other teachers and technology. Technology in primary is powerful and necessary considering the world our kiddos are growing up in!

How have you used your class set of iPads to create a blended learning environment in your classroom? My students use iPads for different avenues of their learning. The basic one is apps. We use apps for educational games. They also use iPads as a listening center. They scan QR codes and listen and watch stories being read to them. We have math stations during the week and students will use an iPad to access the video I make to show them how to work in their math station. They access this through a QR code I create to connect them to the video. The video helps them see and hear the rules for the station but also different ways to play the games and the learning targets they will be working on while in that station! [Editor's note: if you don't have a mobile device, you can scan QR codes with the webcam of a laptop or Chromebook using The QR Code Generator website.] I also use iPads for personalized learning in Kindergarten.

Personalized learning in kindergarten?  How do you do that?  
Yes, you heard me right! My students are on an app called Boom Learning (Boom Cards is the name in the app store). I created my free account and added my students. I am able to assign task cards to my students based on their individual needs in the areas of Math, ELA, Science and Social Studies. I can create task cards, but the website has a ton of free task cards in their store or I can purchase decks through Boom Learning and on Teachers Pay Teachers. My students are able to work on skills they need and on their level. Not only does this help the students but Boom Learning keeps reports for me to access how my students are performing on each skill. I see their accuracy, the number of times the deck was attempted, and I can even see the rate at which the student is answering or performing the skill. This helps me see if they lingering on a certain problem for a long time, and I can check in with them and pinpoint where they may be struggling and intervene to help!

Some stakeholders are concerned if we are using too much technology, especially with primary students.  What is your opinion on integrating digital tools for K-3 students?  How do you balance and manage digital tools with more traditional, analog approaches to learning? 
I think we are doing our students a disservice if we do not use technology in our classrooms. That is the nature of the beast and the world around us is filled with technology. We want our students able to use technology appropriately and efficiently. Yes, I use a lot of technology in my classroom, but I also use pencil and paper and crayons and markers. My students are well balanced in learning from both technology and traditional tools in Kindergarten. We write daily, we color daily, and we are learning to type too!

What are some of your favorite iOS apps or iPad-friendly web tools?  
Definitely Boom Learning! I love how I can differentiate with it. I have students working on addition through 20 already even though we are not to addition in our Core Content instruction yet! I found Boom Learning to be more beneficial having the iPads and also because of the reports I get from it. I also like Splash Math, ABCya, Sand Draw, Rainbow Draw, Glo Draw.  With an app called Sticky, students practice typing words. We have just started working with a few apps on coding!

What’s a new tool or digital approach you are wanting to try out for the first time?
I want to incorporate Google Classroom but we are not there yet!  Google Classroom may work better for iPads a little later in the year. I am definitely interested in coding and teaching them how to code. I am looking into some LEGO kits that do just that for the classroom!

Any advice you would like to share with other K-3 teachers wanting to integrate edtech? 
TRY IT! Yes, it can be scary and yes you are going to STRUGGLE but as [our principal] Mr. Green reminds us, it is all about the struggle! We learn when we struggle! Do not give up and be creative.  Make it work for you and your kiddos!

Thank you Ms. Collins for taking the time to interview!

In closing, here are some additional resources for blended learning and tools for elementary students:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Legends of Learning

Greetings, all!  Sorry for the hiatus, as this fall as been busy.  As I prepare to go to my first regional ECET2 conference in Hebron, Kentucky this weekend, I thought I would take the time to blog.

The focus of this entry,  Legends of Learning, is something I've been excited about since I first heard of it several months ago.  I have talked about it in interviews, and shared it in professional development sessions.  In short, Legends of Learning (hereby shortened to LoL) takes two of my passions in learning -- personalization and games -- and combines them in a unique and compelling way.

While the content is currently limited to middle school science, LoL has stated they will expand their offerings to other contents as well as to elementary and high school levels.

How does it work?  As a teacher,you first need to register with an email and a password, along with your school information.  (Students simply need their teacher's code to join his/her "class," give their first and last name, and create a username.  Conversely, teachers can also create student accounts and rosters/groups when at the "playlist" dashboard.)

Once in as a teacher, you can explore and play any of the games offered.  First, you can browse by three science topics: earth, life, and physical.  You'll then see learning objectives listed (by standards).   Finally, you can look at individual games.  Once you find ones you like, you can begin creating "playlists" by dragging and dropping them onto the playlist bar in the order you like.  (Bonus: an indicator gives you a feel for how long it might take to complete all of the playlist games.)  When you are ready, you can launch the playlist.  With some built-in assessment questions (unfortunately, you cannot customize or add to them), you can get a feel on how well students are comprehending the material as well as how far and fast they are proceeding in the games, all in a real time teacher dashboard in a very easy to follow user interface.

It should be noted that teachers begin with so many free "coins."  Each time one student plays one game, it costs one coin.  While there are ways to get more coins without spending money (see "Downsides?" below), at some point you will likely have to consider a one year license purchase (available for quote request but not listed on the LoL site).

There are several useful, even innovative, features built into Legends of Learning:

Managing Students, Freeplay, and Pause/Stop

The dots representing the students march across the playlist as they complete their games and assessments.  You can click on any of them to see which student they are, and how accurately they are answering multiple choice questions in real time.

If any student dot turns red, that means they have opened up a new tab and are no longer interacting with a game.  This is by far one of my most favorite aspects of Legends of Learning!  What an easy way to manage students to stay on task!

If a student completes all of their assigned games and there is still time remaining, a student can do "freeplay" -- that is, play any of the games available in the assigned science objective.   An instant answer to the student who asks, "What do I do when I'm done?"

Last but not least, you can pause a playlist at any time to do a "catch and release," or stop it entirely.

Quick Comprehension Overviews

As assessment questions are answered by at least one student, the question "opens up" in a growing column on the right side of the dashboard.  With the green and red indicators, you can quickly determine if certain questions are not going well (like the "male peacocks" and"bird mating calls" questions in the above image).  Might be time to pause the playlist and do a catch and release!

Post-play Data Reporting

Once the playlist is over, you can click on the orange "Question Data" button in the bottom right to see how students performed.  You can view this inside the LoL dashboard, but you can also export this data as a CSV file.

One final positive about LoL is the depth of its onsite resources and research information around game based education.  If one is looking for why and how gaming improves learning, or looking for other educational games to use, LoL's site is a solid place to start.

How could you use it?  Since you are not limited in how many playlists you create, you could make them for differentiating to a group of students or even down to personalizing for one student.  It could be a different way of "flipped learning" by delivering content or building schema as games for homework, then use classtime to apply student knowledge.  And what better way to slip in direct instruction of content during project based learning science units at the student's choice of time, place and pace?

Downsides?   You always hope for free tools, so the inevitable cost of students playing the games is a bit of a bummer.   However, you can share a referral code to colleagues which, if it results in a sign up, will get more coins for you!  You can also earn coins by giving critical feedback on the games themselves. However, your opportunity to try it at no charge should give you enough evaluation time to see if it makes a difference for instruction and learning before paying anything.  As already mentioned at the beginning, the current limitation of only middle school science content hinders larger amounts of classrooms being able to use the material, but I believe patience will pay off in expanded offerings in the future.

Have you tried Legends of Learning?  If not, what are some other educational game websites you feel make an impact on student learning?   Respond in the Comments below.