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Wednesday, September 26, 2018


While there are certainly very effective ways to have classroom discussion the analog way -- look no further than a well done Socratic circle -- digital discourse can be uniquely powerful.  It has always been a particular specialized edtech interest of mine, going back to my U of L graduate classes in the early 2000's.  As one of my action research projects, I gathered data on college students who raised hands in class to answer questions versus their participation in online forums.  Perhaps not surprisingly, while nearly all students interacted digitally, "real" discussion in class was limited to roughly half the classroom, and only a handful of students tended to dominate the conversation.  Sound familiar?

Besides making the simple amount of participation more equitable, other advantages of digital discourse became readily apparent:

  • Because students could think and even revise their questions and observations before hitting send, the responses can be a bit more thoughtful.  However, responders can also be "trigger-happy" and the quality can be just the opposite, so culture and expectations are key here.
  • Digital opportunities opened up asynchronous as well as "real-time" opportunities to talk, expanding discussion beyond the four walls of the classroom.
  • Dominating personalities in real life become more flattened -- quiet students could sound as "loud" as their more outgoing peers.
  • Students more naturally talk directly to each other, rather than through the teacher.
  • In a real time online discussion, everyone can "talk at once," something not possible without shouting and chaos in real life.
  • Digital discourses can often be easily archived or exported.
  • Since a digital discourse creates a physical artifact, it can be formatively assessed, whether with informal feedback or with rubrics that indicate how students are meeting mastery of speaking and listening standards.
One of my favorite and free digital discourse tools was TodaysMeet.  It was around long enough (ten years!) that I actually used it as a classroom teacher for one of my videotaped National Boards lessons.   Alas, it finally closed down several months ago.  Since then, I've searched for alternatives and finally found one that is as simple (and free!) as TodaysMeet -- YoTeach!, a project of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  (More about their "Pedagogic & Active Learning Mobile Solutions" here.) 

How does it work?  Once you go to the site, you can make a chat room in seconds.  Type your room's name and hit the "Make Room" button.  Share the room's URL, and people can join the chat instantly -- no log in or user account required, they just pick a nickname.  While technically users are anonymous, two tips: explain to students that the only way they will get credit for their contributions is if they use their real names, and advise them to use common sense digital citizenship protocol (never say anything you wouldn't in a public space with Grandma listening).

YoTeach! does offer some very helpful features.

  • By checkmarking "Avoid Search," the room will not show up in public searches, and gives you a bit more privacy.  I highly recommend this!
  • "Enable Admin Features" is also highly recommended.  By creating a password for you (unique to the room you are about to create), you will be able to do some moderation features such as mute or remove a student, get student participation statistics, switch from a chat to a voting mode (perhaps as part of a reflection at the end of the day, where students indicate the most insightful or important contributions), and more.   The only way you can make sure a room can be deleted is if you enable admin features from the beginning; otherwise, the room and its history will linger indefinitely.
  • "Room Entry Password" is another security feature to protect your students. Without a password, anyone with the chat room's URL can join. 
  • In the chat room itself, participants can do more than just text responses. You can also share pictures with annotations, or use a mini-whiteboard feature to "draw." 
  • You can export a transcript of the chat as a PDF.

Richard Byrne, edtech extraordinaire behind Free Technology For Teachers and Practical Edtech, did a great screencast video overview of YoTeach! (5:15):

How could you use it?   Here are three ideas:
  1. Create a backchannel chat while watching a video.  The opportunities for students to post questions and insights, as well as the teacher probing and clarifying, can create a rich, engaging experience beyond just passive viewing.
  2. Create a virtual after-hours office, where you help students during a scheduled time slot.  Even better would be student leaders running the chatroom doing the same function.
  3. Conduct the equivalent of a "Twitter Chat" at a certain time after class on a particular topic. This could be a remediation opportunity, enrichment, or even a flipped learning experience of content that will directly lead to work in class the next day.
Downsides?  Without the teacher having a login account, there is no way to easily save all of your created chatrooms.   (This was true of the earliest version of TodaysMeet as well.) If you close the browser without somehow saving the chatroom URL, you may have to start all over.  I'm also not sure if the ability to search "public" random chatrooms is helpful from a student perspective, since it may lead to more distractions than anything useful for a classroom setting.  In fairness, however, once a student joins a specific chat room the search is not readily apparent.  Lastly,  I wish rooms were "" (more like how TodaysMeet worked) instead of the current unusual URL address configuration.  

I wish for digital and analog discourse to happen frequently in your classroom!

Note: special thanks to Noel Gnadinger, my old South Oldham High School colleague and librarian par excellence who led me to YoTeach! in one of her Facebook posts.

Revision 9/26/19:  The YoTeach site is now at revised the links above to reflect this.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Google Keep

Sorry for the long blog break!   With Shelby students back to school since August 1, I have been busy helping to onboard multiple new digital platforms for our district.   Let's break the silence with a discussion of one of the newest members of the G Suite apps, Google Keep

Google Keep is a free tool optimized for making short notes, and like the rest of Google Drive, saves it to the cloud for easy access across devices.  At first, I didn't jump to use it -- I have been a fervent fan of Evernote back to my classroom teaching days (up to nearly 2000 notes as of this entry, if you must know!) and wasn't convinced in what ways Keep filled a needed niche.  But I've grown fond of it, not least because of how others have demonstrated its utility to me.  I've discussed Keep in several presentations over the past year, and it is one of the tools I'm most likely to hear about from attendees months later.   So with that in mind, I thought it time to give it an Edtech Elixir blog entry!

How does it work?  You can access your Keep three major ways: by opening a new browser tab and going directly to, inside of a Google Doc by going to Tools > Keep notepad (only for business or education accounts), and lastly, through its mobile app.  The mobile app has some unique features; more on that in a moment.

When looking at your full Keep inside a browser, you can see your notes as tiles that continue downward as the newest notes start at the top.  (You can also "pin" notes to keep them at the top.) Creating a new note can quickly happen by utilizing the bar at top.  Various options appear as you make the note or as you edit it later, including attaching pictures, making a simple drawing, or creating a checkbox "to do" list.

From the left side, you can quickly navigate to certain notes.  Examples include a specific label, just your reminders, or notes you have archived.  Archiving can be a good way of clearing the field of notes that are no longer useful or relevant, without actually "trashing" them.
Notes can have "Reminders" added.  What is intriguing is that you can choose to make it time based (which will tie into your Google Calendar and remind you accordingly), or you can make it place based.  With Google Keep as an app on your phone, that means you will be pinged once you get within so many feet of a place.  An example might be getting reminded to buy milk once you hit the parking lot of your grocery.

Notes can have collaborators. This allows one or more people to have real-time editing rights.  It's important to point out that currently there are no "view only" options for notes, so an editing partner can do their worst and there is no function like "version history" to easily revert to a previous incarnation.

As ways to organize your notes, you can change the color of the note itself, or add "Labels."  Colors can create a personal visual cue for certain types of notes.  Labels can create a system of tags that allow you to sort your notes into categories by utilizing the Keep navigation menu on the left.

At the bottom of the note, the "three dots" menu gives you several more options:

If you upload a picture, you can grab its text so you can edit and manipulate.  From playing around with this feature, it is remarkable how accurate it works!  (An example is below.)

Under the same three dot menu, you can also "Copy to Google Docs."  If you feel like the note is beginning to chafe under the restraints of Keep, this is an easy way to grow it with a quick export.  From a writing perspective, the brainstorm ideas or first paragraph prompt responses of a Keep note can become a full blown Doc when the time is right.

The Keep mobile app allows you to view, sort, and create notes much in the same way as the desktop version.  However, there are several features unique to the mobile version.  Drawing (either on a blank canvas, or annotating a picture) is a much easier interface on a phone or tablet.  Voice recording is only possible on the mobile app.  On the desktop, you can upload images, but the mobile app integrates the device's camera so you can take pictures.

Last but not least, there is a Google Keep Chrome extension.  This is especially useful if you want to quickly clip and save URLs of sites to your Keep.

Back in June, I was a facilitator for the #KyGoDigital Northern Kentucky Regional.  It made a little history as the first statewide virtual PD event.  In one of our breakout sessions, I discussed Google Keep during a Hangout on Air (37:00).  It can serve as an overview and live demo of the tool:

How could you use it?   For those that love Post-Its, Keep is a tool that naturally takes that same "quick note" idea and expands the concept digitally, allowing for better organization and making it nearly impossible to lose your thoughts.

My wife and I both have Android phones and personal Gmail accounts, so we have found Keep to be an easy way to make collaborative shopping lists.  One of us can add items as soon as we think of them, which the other will see in real time; as a person shops and checks off items, it's also easy to see their progress through the store!   For school, consider how you and your colleagues can also share similar lists of things to get or tasks to accomplish.

By creating an individual note for each student you mentor or need to confer with, then collaborating on that note with the student, you can create a great system for capturing conferring notes and seeing what the current goals are.  Collaboration allows for it to be a virtual dialogue.  In theory, this note could eventually be exported to a Google Doc at the end of the year as a longer record of the student's progress and growth.  What a wonderful way to track and monitor personalized learning!

If you want to capture learning (either in pictures, observation notes, and/or voice recordings), Google Keep on a mobile device could be a great way of doing so.  This doesn't have to only be done by teachers!  Students with their own phones or tablets could do it for themselves.   The students could then use the Keep artifacts as a starting point for portfolio collections and deeper reflections.

Daniel Edelen, a former teacher at Shelby's Clear Creek Elementary, was one of the first to show me the instructional possibilities of Google Keep.  The following Facebook Live video (12:00) was from our 2017 Edtech Share Fair, where Mr. Edelen briefly describes how he used Keep with his students. (An excerpt of the video also appears in the #KyGoDigital session above, but here is the full presentation in better quality.)

Downsides?  The formatting of text is very limited -- not only are you unable to change a font or text size, but you cannot even bolden or italicize.  Without some kind of organization structure (pinning, color coding, labels, archiving), it may become unwieldy as you scroll and scroll through your growing notes.  I would like to see a "view only" sharing option to protect from the potential editing complications of adding collaborators.  However, in fairness to the tool, the best use of Keep recognizes that it is optimized for quick content creation and easy integration across your Google Drive cloud access; more lengthy or complicated documents would be better suited for Google Docs.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I love Evernote.  With my many years of crafting Notebooks and Tags to organize my digital life, as well as its robust content formatting and options, I will not give Evernote up any time soon.  Still, it's worth pointing out that I pay for the Evernote Premium features that allows, among other things, a significant increase of  material uploading capacity.   On the other hand, Keep is free, very user friendly, just one click away from your Google Drive, and easy for collaboration with colleagues and students.  I highly recommend taking some time to try it out!

How are you using Keep?  Are you a fan of Evernote or another cloud-based notetaking program?  Share in the Comments below.