Session Preparation for #OTRK12

Yup, On The Rise is this week. It’s hard to believe we’re that far into the school year already, and it’s harder to believe that it’s been over year since OTRK12 2014.

This year I’m very happy to be presenting on Friday morning. The session title is “How To Become An EdTech Leader” and it’s for school and system leaders. Here’s the official description:

What does it take to be a leader in educational technology (EdTech) today? You don’t need to be a technical wizard. You do need to be willing to connect to a community, listen to others, and share what you’re doing.

We’ll talk about how to create or join different kinds of communities online. We’ll explain some different roles you can have. We’ll have hands-on time for you to get started using a platform of your choice based on your personal goals. And we’ll look at the challenges you can experience trying to lead at different levels of your organization (and propose some solutions!).

You’re coming to this session because you want to be a better leader with EdTech. If you’re a highly connected, social media guru, you probably want to go to a different session.

Did I mention it’s only an hour long? Yup, it’s a big topic. I’m paring down the stuff I’m going to talk about, and I think I’ll have to write an obscenely long blog post to get the rest of it out there.

My basic outline for myself is the following:

  1. Introduce myself (and participants, if there aren’t too many)
  2. Share some types of communities
  3. Develop some goals that participants might have as leaders
  4. Share some roles or stances that leaders can take
  5. List some possible/preferred online platforms
  6. Share challenges/cautions and solutions/suggestions to go with them
  7. Breathe a bit

I’m definitely feeling the time crunch. Sadly, I’m more verbose in person than I am in writing (shocking, I know), so I’ll need to strictly monitor myself. Of course, the actual path I take during the hour will depend on the other learners in the room with me.

Suggestions are very welcome, as always.

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Why I’m happy with the design of my first e-Learning course

I’m teaching ICS3C/3U (Computer Programming/Computer Science) online this semester. I was the e-Learning Contact for my board for several years, but this is my first time teaching online in “real life” (i.e. not a professional learning session).

Overall I’m fairly happy with how I approached the design of my course, and I’ve also learned a few things that I’ll improve upon.

I work in Ontario using the Desire2Learn/Brightspace platform. The Ministry of Education here has provided a “starter course” for each of my classes. I’ve discussed the problems with the format of that course before (see here), and thoughts I had about improving on it. I mostly followed my own advice.

In the end, there were significant differences between the provided course materials and the approach I wanted to take with the course, so I ventured out on my own.

News

I use the News area to share interesting links, reminders, and extra details. Notice I don’t post a news item every day; I’ve decided that’s too much without a real payoff.

A screen capture of a news feed.

 

YouTube

I post a lot of “instructional videos” in the course. The videos show me coding applications live, so students can hear my thinking while I work, see the errors I make and how I correct them, and see how the development environment works visually.

A screen capture of a link to a YouTube playlist.

Of course, playing videos successfully in the online learning environment is a bit device-dependent, so I also post every video to YouTube. I maintain them in a playlist (here) and I post a link in a widget on the course homepage. The YouTube videos also have the advantage of sometimes being faster to download, and users can change the resolution on the fly (not very helpful for code, I suppose).

And most importantly, those videos are available for anyone on the Internet to use. That makes me feel good in my heart.

Other Resources

In an out-of-the-way place on the course homepage I maintain a Padlet. I use this to post related-but-not-necessary links.

A screen capture of a Padlet.

Calendar

I don’t use the Calendar directly, but I do use due dates for Content items so they show up in the Upcoming Events list. More on that later.

 

A screen capture of a calendar and upcoming events list.

 

Units, Activities, Modules

I divide up a Unit into Activities, and I number everything:

 

A screen capture showing the activities of a unit.

 

Within each Activity I also “letter” my items sequentially (3.1A, 3.1B, etc.):

 

A screen capture showing activities organized into modules.

Due Dates

I used to only put due dates on the items that needed to be submitted/completed, like Dropboxes and Discussions. After helping an e-Learning student in the library here with her English class, I realized that students were using the Upcoming Events list in the Content area. I had never explored it before, but it was a sparse list in my course.

Now I add due dates to Content items which I want students to consume as well; for example, I put a due date on 3.2E, which is a video I want them to watch by the end of today. They don’t have to submit anything, but I’m hoping the due date helps to keep them on track.

(Note: This is not an “end date”, which would make the item unavailable after the date has passed.)

A screen capture showing upcoming events.

 Content in PDF

I have tried to use HTML, Word documents, and PDF files to post CS content, but I’m happiest posting a PDF that I generate in Word. I get excellent control over the look and feel of the text/images, but the links I put in there still work. It’s also universally-readable.

HTML takes too long to format correctly/beautifully, and Word documents are rendered as images by D2L (disabling any links).

In the end I think the videos are more valuable for the students, especially later in the course. I have several students now requesting videos explaining a certain aspect of the course, but not a lot of PDF requests.

A screenshot showing a PDF file from the course

Still Thinking

I have a lot more to learn, but I’m pretty happy with the workflow I’ve developed now. Suggestions are very welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Teaching Computer Science online – the hard parts

This semester I am teaching my first e-Learning course (I’ve been supporting e-Learning for five years; time for me to walk the walk, eh?). It’s a split ICS3C/ICS3U course in Computer Science and Programming.

I’m using Java with NetBeans and we’re coding “desktop” applications (i.e. not mobile yet). We might later move to Android programming, but I think that’ll probably be enrichment for interested students. There isn’t really a requirement to write for mobile in the course, and it adds a lot of extra layers of complexity.

“The Range”

Complexity would be fine, except many of the students are first-time coders – zero experience with programming of any kind. That’s normal, since ICS3x doesn’t have a prerequisite, and many schools (especially in Northern Ontario, but elsewhere too I understand) can’t afford to offer ICS2O as a precursor.

Of course, many of the students do have a bunch of programming experience, some in Javascript or Visual Basic, others in HTML, and a couple in many languages.

So I have what I think is a typically wide range in starting points for learning computer science and computer programming.

Troubleshooting at a distance

Teaching online has special challenges for any course, but ICS has software requirements that are significant and unusual. You need a “computer” – no tablets, no Chromebooks*. You need an application installed and a development kit. If students are using computers owned by their school boards they may have to ask to have those items installed for them. I’m sure you can imagine how easy that is to accomplish.

Of course, many students are using their own computers. I prefer this, because they can install their own software (a useful skill in its own right) and they have a lot more coding time (evenings and weekends).

So what do you do when you get an email like this?

“Hi Mr Grasley, I can’t find Netbeans on the computer at school. I don’t know what to do.”

After several email messages, we got it all worked out. I’m sure the student was frustrated, and I felt a little helpless. The special software needs are tough up front in the course.

These aren’t Word documents

The e-Learning environment has a handy document renderer which nicely formats Word and other documents for me in the browser. It’s a fairly new feature, and it works really well.

It can’t handle a .zip file containing a Java project, of course.

So, I have to download the student submissions and import them into NetBeans or unzip them and open the .java files in a text editor. A little more onerous, but still manageable.

That’s it so far

See, I’m not complaining – it’s pretty good to have only a couple of issues that are special. I like teaching online, I get to reference xkcd in my course, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester.

*It is possible to use a cloud-based development environment, which would allow you to code using other kinds of devices. I’m not “supporting” that just yet, but I can see it down the road. I’m hoping some of my students try it out and report back.

When are different devices most useful in K-12 education? (Survey to complete!)

An image of a young person cuddling with a pile of electronic devices.

Photo by Jeremy Keith, CC-BY-2.0 via flickr

I’m having lots of conversations right now with teachers across Ontario about what kinds of devices should be in schools. More and more we’re agreeing that there should be a mixture of devices, for a variety of reasons. We’re working on a document to articulate some of those thoughts.

However, when a board/school is trying to purchase technology it often is trying to meet the bulk of student needs, not necessarily provide a device for every possible use case. So, if a school can have iPads or laptops, which should they choose? The answers aren’t simple or clear, and always involve the phrase “it depends on…”.

So I’ve made a short survey that I’d love for you to complete if you’re a teacher in K-12. It doesn’t take long. Just let me know what your thoughts and experiences are with different types of devices. If you need to take the survey multiple times, that’s fine (let’s say because you have experience in elementary and secondary, or your math and music classes are very different).

Here’s the link. Please share widely. And thanks!

http://bit.ly/K12-devices

Teaching teachers about technology

A note to the reader

The following post generalized a problem/solution that I see in my board. It’s not a problem everywhere. It is not universal, but it is common. I’m not pointing fingers; there is no subtext here. I don’t want anyone to be upset, so I’m just letting you know that I’m not talking about you specifically. If you feel like I am, then please consider what I’m saying carefully, because I’m hoping this is valuable reading for you.

New tech in our board

We’re rolling out Office 365 to all staff and students in September. I’m not part of the planning team, so I don’t know what that rollout will look like. I’m thinking back to past “initiatives” (I kind of hate that word), some of which I’ve bumbled up myself, and I feel we need several approaches to learning about this (and any!) new technology.

Learning culture

We’ve done it to ourselves. We’ve developed a culture among our teachers (and students, to a lesser degree) of expecting learning to be “delivered”. It’s happened over many, many years of generic, one-size-fits-all, drive-by-PD in all areas of our profession. We have been passive recipients of knowledge and skills, and there is an expectation that “learning” continues this way. After all, we’re adults, right? The presenter said stuff, and the participants now have the skills!

Except that it doesn’t work like that, and everyone knows it. Two problems here:

  1. Learners have dramatically different entry points; presentations don’t allow for that
  2. Learners need to do work to learn; presentations don’t encourage that

Okay, maybe your presentations deal with problems 1 and/or 2 above, and you’re doing something better than “delivering” to your participants. I’m not talking about your presentations specifically. No need to get huffy. :)

Technology learning culture

In learning about technology, most teachers I know expect “training” in how to use a device/app/web service. They want someone to show them how it works, what it can do. In my experience, that’s the easy part to show, and the least useful part to show. The developers probably included a document (help file or tutorial) that explains all of that. No one reads these things, of course, but they’re perfectly legitimate and often just as effective.

No, the hard part is learning how to use a technology well and for a purpose. Instead of expecting to be trained in the technical details of a tool, I want teachers to expect to learn to use that tool in the context of pedagogy. Better still, I want teachers to consider what their students need for learning, then work together to figure out how to use different tools to help meet those needs.

Learning approaches

Learners will need different levels and types of support depending on a variety of factors (preference, experience, available time, opportunities to implement on the job). Maybe someone will benefit from a tutorial to follow. Another person might appreciate some videos explaining procedures. Lots of people want (and expect) an expert at the elbow, but that’s really expensive and kind of impractical; it can only happen sometimes.

I’m a fan of learning through a project. For example, if I think it’ll be valuable to learn to use a blogging platform, maybe I should try a 7-day blogging challenge. Or perhaps I can learn to use my new tablet by deciding to record and edit video clips for my students. If I have a clear purpose, I’ve given myself a route to follow, and I’m likely to learn things I didn’t know in advance that I would learn.

One other helpful approach is developing or joining a support group. Find other people who are interested in learning the same things, and talk about it. Help each other. Invest in other peoples’ learning and they will reciprocate as well.

Valuing different approaches

There is still the issue of “accountability” and “qualification” and so on. How do we ensure that teachers are learning what they need to? How do we “know” that someone has developed skill with a technology?

We currently don’t value all of the approaches equally. In fact, many people won’t value or even recognize learning that isn’t a structured “course” or “workshop”. Who takes a course in learning to use YouTube? Isn’t it easier/faster/more efficient/more effective to just ask for help or try it out independently?

School boards usually don’t properly value learning that isn’t schooling, and they overvalue accountability. Both contribute to a lack of trust in teachers’ professionalism, which neither encourages nor empowers us. They poo-poo learner choice, favouring homogeneity of delivery over actual learning.

Freedom with support and expectation

I think it’s best to encourage learning (not training!), provide supports for those who want them, and the freedom to choose our own paths.

Take a step back and look objectively: tightly controlled “professional development” clearly hasn’t been working, and it’s been tried for decades. Time to try something else, and to give it a fair shake. It takes long-term commitment to change a culture, so we’d better get started.

First look at Liberio beta, a slick, free eBook publishing service

My friend and colleague Jennifer Keenan (@keenanjenn) asked me recently on Twitter:

I had not, but we both requested invites for early (beta) access. When I had a few minutes I started to play around with it, and I’m really impressed.

A screenshot of the Liberio login screen on a computer

 

It’s still in beta, so not everything worked perfectly (but nearly so!). Overall it’s pretty awesome.

I wrote a short story (originally published here) and so I tried making an ePub file using Liberio.

You have a library of your own stuff. When you click/tap on the “plus” item, you can either select a Document from your Google Drive or upload a file from your computer. I grabbed a Google Document, and it was ready in seconds.

Libary view.

 

You have some control over the settings in your published book. Here are the basics:

Edit Book screenshot.

Expanding “More Options” gives you these choices:

Edit book advanced options screenshot.

I especially liked the License and Rights section, which gives you “All Rights Reserved” and then a half dozen Creative Commons choices.

Pro features aren’t available yet. Also, I’m not a pro :)

I didn’t try uploading a cover image (because I have neither mining photos nor pictures of silver), but the option is there.

When you’re ready to publish, you save your changes and then choose a sharing method. Just saving will upload an ePub file to your Google Drive. You can download to preview the file in your reader of choice (the site doesn’t display for you, but that’s hardly a problem these days), and you can share via email or social media.

Sharing options in Liberio.

For comparison, here are the versions produced by Calibre and by Liberio as viewed on my iPad Mini. Note that publishing in Calibre provided more control but was rather finicky. I think I like the Liberio default better, and being thoughtful as I create my Google Doc would give more control, I imagine.

Calibre-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Calibre.

Liberio-generated eBook viewed in iBooks on an iPad Mini.

Produced by Liberio.

The site looks great on my iPad and iPhone both, although there were a few intermittent browser issues. Some problems may have to do with the wifi here, I’ll admit. Being mobile-friendly makes it much more useful in then K-12 context, I think.

The view on an iPhone

Liberio also gave me an email address to send feedback to, and they’re very responsive so far (both by email and on Twitter at @LiberioApp). I’m looking forward to a few tweaks and updates, and I’m hoping this could be an easy way for students to publish online. This is one to watch, for sure.

LaTeX in WordPress

I assumed I would have to pay fees, get a plugin, or use WordPress.org in order to have math rendered in my blog posts. Not so.

Details are at http://en.support.wordpress.com/latex/, but here’s a sample:

f\left(x\right)=\frac{5}{2}cos(x-\pi)+\frac{1}{2}

Nice, eh? It renders an image and puts the \LaTeX in the ALT tag. I love it.