Welcome to e-Learning. You can’t use the Internet.

It’s the first day of my e-Learning course and a student from another school board sent me an apologetic email.

The student was sorry to inform me that their board has blocked student access to all of the web services we use to communicate.

no-learning

This isn’t just inconvenient; it’s preventing the student from joining the community of learners that we’re developing.

When will the fear of failing their students outweigh their fear of the Internet?

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Which kind of calculator promotes good algebraic thinking?

I teach high school math. Students bring scientific calculators to class, or they sometimes have to borrow one from me. I have two types available: immediate execution calculators and formula calculators. I’ve been wondering lately whether one type of calculator is better for learning algebra than the other.

Here’s how they work (see Wikipedia for a longer explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calculator_input_methods).

Immediate Execution

The TI-36X Solar 2004 version immediate execution calculator.

These calculators work by performing calculations along the way as you type in values and operations. For example, you can evaluate the expression

\sin(3 \times 45)

by typing 3, multiply, 45, then the sine key. As you press operations and operands the calculator will evaluate what it can according to the rules of order of operations, or BEDMAS. For binary operands (those taking two values to produce a result, like multiplication), you put the values in order. For unary operations (those taking just one value, like squaring or taking a sine), the value must be present on the calculator screen when you press the operator key. These calculators usually have a bracketing feature to allow the user to work through complex expressions without using memory storage.

Formula

The Sharp EL-510R formula calculator.

These calculators work by waiting until the user has typed in a complete expression to evaluate, then evaluating the entire expression. The order of button-pushing is pretty much as the symbols are written in the expression, making them easier to use for a lot of folks. Once a value is calculated, it’s stored in an “answer” variable in case it’s needed for the next evaluation.

Algebraic Expressions and BEDMAS

When we write out algebraic expressions, we have a number of conventions to follow. The most important convention is order of operations, which people usually learn to remember with the mnemonic BEDMAS or PEDMAS:

  • Brackets (Parentheses)
  • Exponents
  • Division and Multiplication
  • Addition and Subtraction

When evaluating (simplifying) an expression, you first simplify the smaller expressions inside brackets. Then you evaluate exponents, then division and multiplication in the order they appear, and finally addition and subtraction in the order they appear. It’s useful to think of brackets as isolating sub-expressions, which then follow the same rules. It’s also useful to think of this order as the “strength” of the operation: multiplication is a stronger operation than addition, so it holds its operands more tightly together, and it gets evaluated first.

When a student is learning order of operations, it often feels like a set of arcane rules. There is no reason, from the student perspective, that it has to be this way. In fact, it didn’t really need to be this way, but the convention was established and now it’s important to abide by it (if you want to be understood, that is).

How a calculator helps (and hinders) learning arithmetic

People often lament that today’s youth can’t perform basic arithmetic in their head. It’s unfortunately true; I often see students reach for their calculator to evaluate 35 \div 5 or even 4 \times 6 . These are facts which prior generations had drilled relentlessly and now have available as “instant” knowledge. Younger people typically haven’t spent enough time practising these computations to develop facility with them. This is partly because the calculator is so readily available.

(Aside for parents: If you have kids, please do make them practise their age-appropriate facts. It’ll help them in the same way practising reading makes things easier)

This will draw a lot of heat, I’m sure, but I think calculators do have a strong place in even K-6 learning. They let students explore quickly without the burden of computation getting in the way of non-computational learning. It’s the same effect that web-based, dynamic geometry software can have on learning relationships between figures, lines, etc. (if you’re looking for awesome dynamic geometry software, try GeoGebra – free and wonderful).

But calculators are a hindrance when students are learning to compute fluently. They allow a student to bypass some of the thinking part of the exercise. Don’t let students (or your kids) use a calculator when they don’t have to. Only use them when students need the speed for the task they’re completing.

How a calculator helps (and hinders) learning algebra (?)

Here’s the part I don’t know about, but I’m speculating about.

I think immediate execution calculators require students to understand the algebraic expressions we write, where formula calculators bypass the thinking part of evaluating expressions.

As with arithmetic, if practising evaluating expressions is not part of the learning, and might be getting in the way of the goals for learning, then either type of calculator is fine.

But as students are developing their understanding of algebra and the order of operations, the immediate execution calculator displays the results of operations as they are evaluated, while the formula calculator obscures the evaluations in favour of a single result.

When a student types 5, add, 6, square, equals into an immediate execution calculator, they see the value 36 as soon as they press the square button. There is a reminder that the square operation is immediate. Similarly when a student wants to evaluate \sin(30+45) they must type 30, add, 45, equals*, then sine, emphasizing that the bracketed portion has to be evaluated first (i.e. before the sine function is applied).

*A student can use brackets, which is equivalent to pressing equals before sine. Also, I hope anyone using the sine function knows that 30+45 is 75 and doesn’t need a calculator’s help for the addition.

Is there research?

I perused the InterTubes to find research into this question, but either it’s not out there or I’m not skilled enough to find it.

I want to know whether one calculator is better than the other for a student who is learning to evaluate expressions.

Has no one looked into this? Help?

How To Become An EdTech Leader

by Noël Zia Lee at flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0 licence.

by Noël Zia Lee at flickr.com, CC-BY 2.0 licence.

I hosted a session at On The Rise this year. I’ve posted my slides as a PDF, but I knew from the start that a 60-minute session would be too short for the topic. Here is the previously-mentioned, obscenely long, supplementary blog post.

Introduction

Being a leader in educational technology does not mean becoming technically skilled. It doesn’t mean you can write code, recover crashed hard drives, or configure a router. You don’t even have to know what those phrases mean.

Being an EdTech leader means that you have relationships with others, and that you share with them using technology.

Goals

In order to lead effectively, you need some goals. Here are a few generic examples of goal types:

  • Develop skills and knowledge to improve yourself and your work
  • Develop skills and knowledge in your team
  • Foster collaboration in your team
  • Give to the larger community (beyond your team)
  • Develop personal and professional relationships
  • Share resources

For example, you might have a goal of learning how to use audio recordings for assessment as learning in a language class. You might have a goal of connecting your teachers to teachers in other school boards. You might want to develop closer professional relationships within your department. You might want to collect and curate resources to support newer teachers.

All of these are great goals, but make sure you follow one simple rule:

Have goals for yourself and goals for others

One or the other type isn’t enough if you’re trying to consciously lead. If you only have goals for yourself, you have no reason to share and support others. If you only have goals for others, you’re just trying to “improve” them without being honest about your own needs. Have both.

Kinds of Communities

There are a lot of ways to categorize communities, but the “publicness” of a community is fundamental.

Public vs. Private

This is really a continuum.

At one extreme end of the continuum we have completely public communities, which anyone can observe and in which anyone can participate. For example, Twitter is generally* publicly and globally available. What you say there is readable by anyone, even those who don’t have user accounts with the service.

(*I’m not going to put asterisks all through this post, but be aware most of these statements can be modified by user settings. For example, on Twitter you can protect your tweets so that only approved users can read them.)

At the other extremity we have completely private communities, which are only visible to the “invited” few. For example, you may have a Facebook group that only approved participants can join. The rest of the world isn’t allowed inside.

What’s best depends on who wants to participate, what their level of comfort is, and what everyone’s talking about.

You might have a private community when you need to talk about something sensitive or confidential, or when the participants are worried about making very public mistakes (particularly if this sort of community is new to them). You might protect the conversation when you need to prevent self-censorship in order to have honest dialogue.

You might have a public community when your local community (e.g. the people you work with) is a small one, and you want outside voices. It’s good to be public with universal issues, like assessment or writing.

You might partially protect the conversation by making it “read-only” to the uninvited. For example, perhaps you share the work you’re doing with your department members on a departmental blog/wiki/etc. The rest of the world can view your resources, but only your department members can update the work or comment on it.

Constructed vs. Organic

Some communities are organized and constructed. For example, you might set up a discussion group about instructional strategies, or you might create a sharing folder for rubrics. The purposes of those communities or activities are clear, and so they’re constructed.

Instead you might just set up a space for conversation to happen. Twitter is my favourite place for this. The topic isn’t defined in advance, so we can talk about anything we want to. The connectedness of the participants is what matters, not the quality of the prompt. Organic communities tend to be participant-directed and very welcoming of tangential thinking.

Halfway between these is the ConstrOrganic community (yes, I just made that up. I’m sure it’ll catch on). This is a community of people which doesn’t have a tight restriction on the conversation, but does sometimes provide prompts. For example, you might ask an open-ended or reflective question on Twitter: “How does your experience with technology in your personal life affect your use of technology in the classroom?” The question itself is posed in an otherwise organic community, but you can try to mould the conversation for a while. In my experience we don’t stay “on-topic” for very long, but that’s fine: the talk goes where it needs to, not where I aim it.

Required vs. Optional

This is one of the hardest to deal with, and it very much depends on (a) who you are, (b) what your role is in your organization, (c) who you are leading or hoping to lead, and (d) what your goals are for the people you lead.

If you’re a principal of a school and you want all the teachers you work with to reflect on their assessment practices in an online space, you might be considering requiring a writing activity in a private, online space. When you imagine how that will play out, you might be concerned that some folks might not participate, or that the participation might not be as deep and reflective as you want.

Rule of thumb: don’t require participation (at least at the beginning) if it’s not anonymous (and therefore safe). People need to trust you in order to follow you. If you don’t already have the level of trust that makes an optional task work well, then you don’t have the level of trust that makes a required task work well with names attached. By removing the names, you’ll remove a good portion of the (legitimate) fear associated with putting thoughts out there.

For example, you can create a shared online document (like a Google Doc) and make it editable to anyone who has the link. Participants can modify the document without identifying themselves, which makes it a lot more likely to be honest and complete.

Instant? Persistent?

Your interactions within your community can be synchronous (instant), like a tweet, or asynchronous, like a blog post and a comment. This is often a tradeoff between speed (synchronous) and depth (asynchronous).

Online conversations are usually persistent (they stay there forever), but they may not be easy to return to or make quick sense of later. Sometimes conversations are temporary, like a back-and-forth on TodaysMeet.com or a Google Hangout.

I wonder if having persistent, asynchronous conversations creates a thoughtful-but-cautious environment, possibly erecting a barrier or self-censorship. Is it true that instant, casual, organic conversations are more honest and allow for experimental thinking?

Email is not an effective community

It could be, I suppose, but don’t just do this. Mass email isn’t personal, interactive, or persistent (for most people), which can be good things to have. It’s typically one-way communication, and you can’t really opt-in or opt out. Other types of services will work better for you.

Possible Roles

In your participation in any community in which work is being done, you usually take on one of four roles. You’ll move between them freely and frequently once you’re a solid member of a functional community.

Quester

I have a question or problem, and I’m looking for an answer or solution.

For example, I post to Twitter, “Anyone have a good summative task for the quadratics section in MCF3M?” That’s a specific quest, and I’m the Quester. Anyone else in the community can answer, and anyone else can benefit from the answer.

Adventurer

I am trying something new, and I’m going to share my journey.

For example, I decided to try some physical demonstrations in my classroom for quadratic motion. I wrote a blog post explaining what I had come up with, shared some video from class, and reflected on how effective it was. I wasn’t an expert, but I shared what I found out (even if it turned out to be wrong).

Neophyte

I am learning something new from you, and I may ask questions.

This is great when there is a source of wisdom you can tap into. For example, I can read all about how to use Screencast-o-matic to improve an e-Learning course by watching someone’s videos or reading their tutorials. If there is something I don’t understand, I can ask questions. The answers help me, and both the answers and the questions help others (including that expert).

Adept

I have some special skills or knowledge, and I’ll demonstrate or share.

For example, I post instructional videos about how to program a computer using the Java programming language. I’m sharing some niche knowledge that I have, and I invite conversation and questions about it. I’m not looking for anything specific, but that knowledge does very little good bottled up in my own skull.

Choosing a Platform

There are three major considerations:

  1. Does the platform have the level of privacy that I want or need? This is a dealbreaker if it doesn’t. Also consider the granularity of privacy settings, because you might want to “reduce” them later (e.g. become somewhat more public).
  2. Does the platform have the functions I want or need? Think about formats, ease of use, technical support, exportability (if I leave, can I bring my stuff with me?), and cost.
  3. Will/does the community use the platform? If a platform is popular, the community might already exist or be easier to create. No one wants another password to remember.

Some possibilities

Lots of platforms serve multiple purposes. YouTube is for video, but it includes commenting. WordPress is for blogging, but it can serve as a fully functional website. Facebook is a social network, but it has private community pages. Here are a few loose categories and some popular services:

  • Blogging (WordPress, Blogger, Medium)
  • Video or Vlogging (YouTube)
  • Social Networking (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook)
  • Curating (Pinterest, Scoop.it)

Some Challenges and Cautions

Here are some other considerations when you’re adventuring online.

Be careful what you say

Think about maintaining loyalty to your employer, respecting copyright and other licences, and protecting student identity and information. There are some things that you simply can’t say in public.

Who’s listening?

You might draw unwanted attention, even if what you say is “allowed” and isn’t “wrong”. For example, what will you do if a parent has a concern about the conversation between two teachers revealing a lack of professional understanding? Also consider students, other schools, and community members.

What is privacy, really?

When you post something in a private or protected space, you’re trusting the other people in that space to maintain the privacy of your thoughts. Before you post something, consider what might happen if it were “leaked”.

Will this be personal, professional, both?

Each has advantages and disadvantages. Your decision will depend on your goals. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter from a while ago:

No takers?

What if your team doesn’t follow you? What if they want to do something else? What if your team is already doing something different? What if your team is afraid?

You’ll have to work through the reasons for your particular situation, and talk with your team. There might be nothing you can do, except for continuing to share and model good practice.

What if my preferred platform is filtered by my organization?

Is there a good reason for the filtering? Are the people who make those decisions aware of what you’re trying to accomplish? Are they supportive? Have you talked with them about it (really talked, not just made a request by email)?

Sometimes the decision makers have parameters that you’re unaware of, and sometimes you have insight they are unaware of. Talk to each other. In the best situations, neither party thinks they have all the answers.

Final thoughts

At On The Rise: K-12 in 2014 Catherine Montreuil (then of Bruce-Grey Catholic DSB) said, “Private practice is inconsistent with professional practice.”

Being connected makes someone a leader, and being open and transparent are the best ways to get connected. You don’t need to be expert, articulate, or tech-savvy.

You just need to be willing to share.

 

How I Use Twitter Professionally – Version 4

Two and a half years ago I wrote How I Use Twitter Professionally, then revised it with How I Use Twitter Professionally – Updated! and How I Use Twitter Professionally – Updated Again!

I guess we’ll make it an annual thing:

My tweets are public.

I’m trying to encourage conversation and collaboration, so my tweets are globally accessible. This also means I don’t make statements I wouldn’t be comfortable with anyone reading – my family, my students, my employer….

I don’t follow a lot of people.

I currently follow 370 people, of whom about 250 are actively tweeting (let’s say at least weekly). Some of these aren’t related to education; for example, I follow The LEGO Group (@LEGO_Group) and authors John Scalzi (@scalzi) and Marko Kloos (@markokloos – he has a new book out today!).

I can’t read all of the stuff they tweet. I’m relying on my tweeps to retweet the really good stuff so I have a better chance of seeing it, or to mention me if it’s something they think I ought to notice.

I accept anyone as a follower, pretty much.

Except for a few obvious accounts, I let anyone follow me. Since my tweets are public, anyone can read them (even without a Twitter account), so letting people follow me doesn’t reveal anything extra. Plus, it’s easier when you don’t have to approve people.

I don’t follow back as a courtesy.

Before I decide to follow someone, I take a look at their tweet history. Is their stream of tweets going to enhance my experience? Will I learn from them? Or will I only learn what they had for breakfast?

I’m a fan of some personal stuff on Twitter, but if you post 300 times a day just to talk without conversing, I don’t need to see it. It’s not about you, it’s just that your use of Twitter doesn’t fit with mine. I think your lifestyle on Twitter should be like the Law of Two Feet: if it’s not working for you, move on.

I don’t accept Direct Messages (DMs) from people I don’t follow.

This cuts down on the spam. Now it’s just mentions, and there aren’t too many of those. This is a good idea for anyone, so I thought I’d list it here.

I also don’t follow people who I don’t want to DM me. That especially includes students. I have my school email for that kind of communication.

I follow hashtags for a while.

I follow #OTRK12 (our annual conference in Mississauga – this week!) and #elADSB (for my Board’s e-Learning teachers). I don’t follow the very busy tags, although I sometimes apply them to my posts (#D2L, #onted, #blendedlearning, #edtech).

I try to follow the people in Northern Ontario. We face many of the same issues, and perhaps we have solutions to help each other. I like that idea.

I don’t cross post to Facebook anymore.

I tweet too much. No one on Facebook wants to read all of that stuff. The handful of FB friends who do are also Twitter users and teachers, so they just go to Twitter to find me. When I write blog posts WordPress will publicize them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, and I’m certain that’s plenty for the FB crowd.

I use Tweetdeck; it rocks.

Chrome has TweetDeck as an app; I like that I can have columns for a variety of things I want to look at. Currently I have my Twitter timeline, my Twitter Interactions, my Twitter Messages (DMs), and columns for a bunch of hashtags and lists I follow.

I say things for myself, and I say things for others.

I tweet things that I want to remember or revisit (great for “note-taking” at a session/workshop/conference). I also tweet things to inform others or start conversations. My tweets (of links and such) aren’t endorsements, but since people sometimes view them that way I try not to share stuff that I’m not at least familiar with.

I talk a lot, but not too much

I try to ask questions and help out when others ask questions. I’m proud to say I am included as an honourary member of the SGDSB educators list because I help out the teachers up there, so I think my contributions are valued.

More importantly, I’m developing relationships with these distant folks, and the growth of my PLN has helped me out in my work as well. It was very exciting last year at OTRK12 to meet people whom I knew only through Twitter, and it was surprising how natural the face-to-face interactions felt. We were already friends. So thanks, tweeps.

If you want to follow me…

I’m @bgrasley. No pressure, of course. Use Twitter however it works best for you, and don’t be upset if other people use it differently!

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Changing the rules about electronic devices on planes is overdue, but the conversation is silly

Transport Canada announced that it’s probably going to allow passengers to use electronic devices during all parts of flights (including takeoff and landing), as long as the devices are in “airplane mode” (not transmitting or receiving).

Ha ha ha.

Passengers are [suddenly] concerned about enforcement of the airplane mode, as though it is a new issue.

The reality is that passengers have not been putting their devices in airplane mode during flights for years, let alone powering them down during takeoff and landing, meaning that the Canadian airlines have been unwilling participants in hundreds of thousands of tests of an even more liberal use of technology.

Seriously, we already know that these devices aren’t going to bring planes down. If they could, we wouldn’t be allowed to have them anywhere near the vehicles. Start selling WiFi to passengers and you’ll make a lot more money.