It’s Not The Gadget

Apr 2, 2013 by

I was having an interesting conversation over on the Edutopia forums about whether a school should consider spending limited resources on laptops or iPads.  It’s a reasonable question, bu tI think it’s the wrong question to ask.

The question should be: What are your goals?  What do you want to do?  Where are the best or easiest resources to deploy for this purpose?

A laptop or a desktop computer typically has a set of software installed on it, like Word, Excel, Powerpoint on it.  It can also access the internet, and often the internet in school has firewalls attached to restrict information accessed online.  A laptop tends to be bulkier than tablets, and often have limited battery life, making a power source an issue in classrooms.  They often take some time to warm up and open programs, which can ebb precious minutes from instruction time during a 45 minute class.

A chromebook is a laptop “lite”.  They have extended battery life, but not quite as much as most tablets.  They have the seven second startup, so much less lost time getting kids up and going on projects. They are basically large computer terminals, using the Chrome Browser.  If you are using lots of internet sites like Quia or other internet -based tools and apps, this could be a good solution.  It won’t be a great solution if you are looking to do a lot of multimedia production (ie. videos, audio, multimedia projects) which require a hard drive of sorts.  Some handy PC or tablet programs like Skitch, which allow you to do a screen capture and annotate it to make slides, How to instructions, or the like aren’t easy to do in a Chrome environment, as these tools are not available as Chrome Apps.  There are screen clip Chrome extensions and apps, but they don’t allow the annotation feature, at least at the moment.

Chromebooks encourage kids to learn to comp0se and save all their documents in the cloud via Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).  If kids have internet access at home, they should be able to access the stuff they have saved at home or frankly, on any internet- enabled device.  Learning about how to use the cloud and have universal access to their information and data is something kids will need to know and use from this point on in their lives, so this is a relevant skill to have.  Plus, guess what? No more losing hard drives, forgetting things at school, etc.  They have access wherever, whenever.  That’s something I think kids and teachers can get behind.

A tablet, and I’ll speak about the iPad here, since that’s the tablet we use most here, is a different form factor.

The iPad works for my kids in school as a laptop replacement. But it’s all about the apps.

The iPad is lightweight and portable, so it’s big advantage is the Backpack factor, especially if schools begin to transfer to e-textbooks.  You can add a keyboard for more demanding typing and note taking.  It is instant on, and it has a 10 hr battery life, meaning we’ve never really had a power issue at all during the school day. (Managing the backlighting also helps extend battery life.)

Because it is a “personal” device, it means the kids use it as a notebook, agenda book, ipod, game device and more.  They play music and listen to podcasts on the bus.  They use email.  But the productivity of the device depends on the apps as well.

They use Audionote to record lectures and take outline notes, which then can use later when studying, rehear what the teacher said about an assignment, etc. They use Flipside to create flashcards and other projects that require 3 x 5 cards (no losing the cards ever this way!)

iHomework and Inclass are used to keep homework and assignments organized, along with reminders to make sure they stay on track.
There are a ton of vocab builders and SAT apps, Khan Academy and more….
There’s Storylines and Comic Life to build stories;

Prezi and  Keynote to create presentations; Skitch to take and annotate any picture or screen capture.

I teach an after school program where kids are using iMovie and the “trailers” feature to create their own short movies, while learning about everything from storyboarding, to telling a visual story, to how music and video work together;

There’s a Goodreads app where kids can keep track of their reading and comment on their friend’s book reviews;

They can use iBooks or the Kindle or Nook app to read any available book and take notes in a book, highlight (and it’s searchable!)- this is a blessing for anyone with a kid who has a last minute assignment or forgot the copy of the novel they were supposed to be reading at school- for a price, you can download it and never worry about it again!

It also has internet access, but not all websites are mobile friendly at this point, and the iPad doesn’t like Flash.  It likes PDF’s just fine with iBooks, however.  This means if you are using sites that routinely use flash games, like Study Island, perhaps iPads are not the best choice.

Programs like Dropbox and Evernote also let kids put the things they create on the iPad into the Cloud, and let them access them from anywhere.   You can also take advantage of the heaps of innovative software to help kids do more writing in the classroom with apps like Maxjournal or Notes; design projects in Design Brief before executing projects, teaching them about the planning process at the same time.  You could use iThoughts HD, which is mindmapping software, or create podcasts and edit them right in Garage band.  With a broad app store, and with many educators creating lists of great apps, it’s not hard to find apps to do whatever you want to do, at a price that’s significantly less than a site license for school software.

Some of these apps come at a price.  They may not work as well when the tablet is not with the kid as their personal device, but it still in the “shared resource, school only” paradigm.  But if your school is thinking one to one, an ipad may not be a bad choice.

I think when we ask the question- What sorts of computers do we need?  The real questions we should ask are more  like these:

  1. Is this a shared or individual resource?
  2. Is this a resource with a price tag we can afford or encourage our families to purchase?
  3. Are we going web/cloud based, or do we still need things printed out regularly? (apps and airprint options work on Chromebooks and tablets when you really need things on paper.)
  4. Do email and digital documents work better or worse than paper in our school?  Can we transition to a paperless environment?
  5. What’s the power charging issue?  Is the logging in process disruptive to the flow of the classroom and are we losing time?
  6. Do we have security issues that are important?
  7. Do we believe kids should have their own computing devices, like they should have their own books, or do we look at them as a luxury item that only a few should have?
  8. Are we looking at the technology, or are we looking at the learning?  If it’s the learning, shouldn’t we get the device that is the easiest to use and is the most flexible?

When you are looking at making these decisions, it’s important to make sure you are asking all the questions, not just the obvious and surface ones.  In fact, think about checking out Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, Decisive, which has a lot of great things to say on making good decisions in any area.
Just remember, it’s never as much about the platform as it is about your imagination and employing the right tool for the right task.

Using Digital Tools to Enhance Learning

Feb 4, 2013 by

This past weekend, I spoke at a great event at the Joyner Library at Eastern Carolina University to school librarians and media directors about creating a digital toolbox.  Librarians and media directors need to be a bit like Home Depot or Lowe’s- a place where you can get just the right tool at the right time to help make your project successful.

I think we often think of librarians as something out of time- a bookish sort of person, with glasses and a stern demeanor, who is more interested in quiet than anything else.  The group of librarians I met were anything but- they are dynamic people, aching to help the teachers in their school, and eager to share the love of reading and learning with any child that crosses their path.

That being said, there are a gazillion new web tools and apps that are available, and it’s often difficult to figure out which ones are good and easy to use, and which ones might bring an extra added dimension to any classroom lesson or project.  With a hat tip to Brandon Lutz and his great 60 in 60 Presentations, I culled through my personal favorite web apps, sites I learned about from other educators at Educon, and some of Brandon’s favorites, to create a list of about 90 resources that are pretty easy to use.

Every tool, like every tool in the hardware store, has basic and advanced uses.  Wordle, for example, can be a way just to make great pictures, or it can be used as a way to analyze word frequency in a text, which might bring deeper understanding to students about anything from the repeating of a phrase for rhetorical purposes in a political speech, or help them better understand their own reliance on catch phrases.  With each of these tools, I suggest you try a few, play with them, and become familiar with them, and then attempt to incorporate them into lessons where they help deepen meaning rather than just become a digital way of doing yet another diorama or poster.

Finding and Using Tools to Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills

With evaluating any tool (and that goes for paper and pencil as well as computer or tech stuff) we need to look past the bells and whistles and think about:

-What’s the end goal of the project or assignment? (Backwards Design)

-What’s the best way for the student to demonstrate the learning or mastery of the subject matter?

-Is there a way we can use a digital tool to enhance the demonstration of outcomes?  Does using a digital tool make the project easier to accomplish, more interesting, engaging, or allow multiple modes of expression?

-Does the tool help differentiate the learning for different learning styles that might be difficult in a pen & paper task?

-Can the tool enhance accountability for the student and teacher? (Nothing gets lost in the cloud.)

-Can we shift some learning of independent tasks from classroom time to at home time?  (Flipping the classroom)

In the end, tools should, by their nature, make a job easier or faster.  If it doesn’t, why use it?  If we use the excuse “Well, kids have to learn all this computer stuff, so let me just bolt on some technology here…” we tend to teach them to use a tool poorly, and many may not (ever) see the point.  For example, when one teacher, about 6 years ago, asked one of my kids to do a power point presentation, making sure to use a minimum of 5-6 sentences per slide, I got pretty upset.  That’s a task that should really be an outline, or note cards.  A Power point or any slide presentation, should be there to enhance the understanding and meaning of what is being said, and act, perhaps, as visual cue cards for the presenter to stay on track.   After all, who wants to go to a lecture and watch someone read their slides?


If you use these resources, please let me know what you think in the comments!

You can download the handouts for my presentation here: Digital Toolbox for Educators

The slides are also available on Slideshare, or you can see them below:

Differentiating Instruction and Assessments

Mar 2, 2012 by

There was an interesting note on Mashable this morning about a new iPad app that not only saves your child’s artwork, but allows them to talk about their artwork and record that at the same time. This made me think that while this is logical progression technology-wise, it’s leaps ahead of where we are in terms of differentiating assessments for kids, and adults alike.

We’re getting better and better about helping teachers understand how to differentiate the delivery method of education- ie teaching to different learning styles, but when it comes to assessment, we’re still largely behind in understanding what a child learns and takes away from the classroom and the work we assign them.

A teacher I know recently had her class contact a prescreened list of adults, to ask them about the creative process they used in their careers, or make something themselves and describe the creative process they used.  This was an attempt to try to get the kids to see the similarities in the writing process and the creative process, and how these same  “tools” were in use long after the classroom was nothing more than a memory.  It was a great project, but as would be expected, some kids invented new devices, some did do interviews, and others made duct tape wallets or other small craft projects.  I hope in the end, each child took something away from the experience, but I wonder whether grading their writing samples about their creative process and that reflection may not have been better served by something like a video or an iphone app where kids would talk and record their process as it took shape, and as ideas were considered, discarded, changed, bounced around, etc. culminating in the final product.

I think we’re on the cusp of really figuring out how kids are thinking and absorbing what we’re trying to get them to understand and appreciate.  When we figure out how to truly differentiate the assessment of students, we may finally begin to make more headway in making school and the lessons we want them to learn more meaningful and personal.  However, it takes so much more work on everyone’s part to truly evaluate learning.  Grades, tiers, and other numerical classification systems are just too easy, and they won’t go away any time soon, even if the meaningful evaluation of the creative process is becoming easier to document every day.

Bringing Attention to Your Efforts

Jan 30, 2012 by

I attended the always fantastic Educon conference this past weekend in Philadelphia.  One of the issues that came up in several conversations was about educators getting better at “shameless self-promotion.”  There were lots of people doing terrific and inventive things with kids, ranging from using World of Warcraft as a learning tool along with the narrative of books like the Hobbit; Kids taking on really terrific project-based learning initiatives; schools experimenting with everything from digital office hours (using Skype) to self-publishing with students.  But the problem is that many of these really great ideas are isolated to the classroom or even to the conference.  Not every administrator or teacher even within that particular school district knew what other teachers were up to, or what their results were, at least outside of the grade level or building.  And often teachers noted that parents seemed to be out of touch or not understand what was going on in the classroom.  The answer to this problem is helping teachers engage in a little shameless self-promotion.

For example, after elementary school, the bulletin boards and hallways in our district, outside of some large display cases, are much less engaging than they were earlier on.  Moreover, there are fewer parents and visitors throughout the building, and less time between classrooms, so I wonder how many people are really seeing and appreciating the work kids are doing day in and day out.  From a teacher’s perspective, if we expect students to take pride in their work and have a sense of audience, is there another way in which we can share and publicize what’s happening in class? How about what the goals are or take away ideas from units or projects?

It made me begin to think of ways classroom teachers, grade levels and even whole schools could start doing a little more shameless self-promotion to the community.  Since often things like school newspapers are being cut or squeezed into other electives, what would happen in once a month, a grade level in middle school got together and published an email newsletter to go out by email to all parents and families?  This could highlight what teachers are doing, a preview of upcoming projects or areas of study, examples of student work, and it could even be written by the students themselves.

By looping parents into all the great things teachers are trying or experimenting with, goals for projects and lines of inquiry, and more, the more likely the school is to get support from its parents, and the more cohesive the community will be.  Too often once kids begin middle school, the sense of belonging to a class and a larger group gets lost and reduced down to the kids in any individual section of algebra or history.  By sharing out successes and goals with the whole grade or school, everyone will be more on the same page.  The pro-active communication will help make parents feel more in tune to what school is trying to accomplish, rather than rely on their students for reporting, which too often is limited to discussions like this:

“What did you do in school today?”   “Stuff.”

“Did you learn anything new? ”    “Not really.”

“Do you have any projects or tests coming up?”  “I don’t know.  They haven’t said.”

“What is interesting to you?”     “I don’t know.  Not much.”

I know if I had a better sense of what was going on in the classroom, I could do a better job as a parent helping students find connections between subjects, or placing their learning in a larger context.  I could help them see the big picture.  But too often, this gets lost in the shuffle and a general sense that as the kids get older, the place for parents to be in tune with the classroom becomes less and less relevant.  Yet the need for students having a sense of the bigger picture and metacognition does not ebb, in fact it may increase over time.

I know this is yet another thing to fit into an already clogged curriculum.  But I think it’s an ide that has merit, and can help teachers garner support from families and administrators for their efforts, if they were just a little better at showing off all the great work they were doing, and the great results they see from the kids.  We all need a little pat on the back from time to time, and sometimes, we need to learn to ask for it.  Providing notices to folks about all the hard work you do every day is one way to ensure it happens a little more often, especially since teens are notorious for underselling what they’re doing.  Yet everyone deserves to take a bow for their hard work, especially teachers.

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Assigning and teaching Presentation Skills

Oct 14, 2011 by

One of the the important 21st century skills we want students to master is the ability to present information in multimedia formats. One of the tools commonly used is powerpoint or keynote- the basic slide presentation. But often, to make these presentations easier to grade, we set metrics for presentations, such as a certain number of bullet points per slide, etc. However, this is probably only teaching students to give the same dull powerpoint presentations we all have to sit through, rather than teaching them to separate “show” and “tell” in their presentations.  Even if we switch students to things like Prezi, all they “eye candy” in the world won;t make up for poor content or poor presentation skills.

The point of asking students to do a presentation should be to allow them to demonstrate their thinking and mastery of subject matter, as well as the ability to communicate that information to others.  These are the key skills they will need later on in life, and teaching them to make meaningful and engaging presentations early on in school will save them from having to re-learn these skills later on in life.  (Plus think of how much more fun it will be to watch great presentations!)

Seth Godin is a famous writer and marketer, and a great presenter. Here’s an example of his work from the Gel Conference, called “This is Broken” which brings up alot of great points about poor design- give it a look:

Seth Godin at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

Seth also has a great blog post on doing presentations that engage people that he even put out as an e-book.  I’ve re-posted it below, to help understand what goes into making compelling presentations, and why  a great presentation accompanied by a handout explaining stuff in detail is probably a much better way to teach kids great presentation skills while  producing work that you can assess and grade.

Seth is a marketer, so his expertise comes from making compelling content people want to pay attention to- I think we can learn a lot from this, to make our classes more interesting, and help our students better communicate their ideas as well.

Really Bad Powerpoint –  Seth Godin

It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to champion at a church or a school or a Fortune 100 company, you’re probably going to use PowerPoint.

Powerpoint was developed by engineers as a tool to help them communicate with the marketing department—and vice versa. It’s a remarkable tool because it allows very dense verbal communication. Yes, you could send a memo, but no one reads anymore. As our companies are getting faster and faster, we need a way to communicate ideas from one group to another. Enter Powerpoint.

Powerpoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not. Countless innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Communication is the transfer of emotion.

Communication is about getting others to adopt your point of view, to help them understand why you’re excited (or sad, or optimistic or whatever else you are.)If all you want to do is create a file of facts and figures, then cancel the meeting and send in a report.

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional, musical and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain. So they use the right side to judge the way you talk, the way you dress and your body language. Often, people come to a conclusion about your presentation by the time you’re on the second slide. After that, it’s often too late for your bullet points to do you much good.

You can wreck a communication process with lousy logic or unsupported facts, but you can’t complete it without emotion. Logic is not enough.

Champions must sell—to internal audiences and to the outside world.

If everyone in the room agreed with you, you wouldn’t need to do a presentation, would you? You could save a lot of time by printing out a one-page project report and delivering it to each person. No, the reason we do presentations is to make a point, to sell one or more ideas.

If you believe in your idea, sell it. Make your point as hard as you can and get what you came for. Your audience will thank you for it, because deep down, we all want to be sold.

Four Components To A Great Presentation

First, make yourself cue cards. Don’t put them on the screen. Put them in your hand. Now, you can use the cue cards you made to make sure you’re saying what you came to say.

Second, make slides that reinforce your words, not repeat them. Create slides that demonstrate, with emotional proof, that what you’re saying is true not just accurate.

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not read me the stats but show me a photo of a bunch of dead birds, some smog and even a diseased lung? This is cheating! It’s unfair! It works.

Third, create a written document. A leave-behind. Put in as many footnotes or details as you like. Then, when you start your presentation, tell the audience that you’re going to give them all the details of your presentation after it’s over, and they don’t have to write down everything you say. Remember, the presentation is to make an emotional sale. The document is the proof that helps the intellectuals in your audience accept the idea that you’ve sold them on emotionally.

IMPORTANT: Don’t hand out the written stuff at the beginning! If you do, people will read the memo while you’re talking and ignore you. Instead, your goal is to get them to sit back, trust you and take in the emotional and intellectual points of your presentation.

Fourth, create a feedback cycle. If your presentation is for a project approval, hand people a project approval form and get them to approve it, so there’s no ambiguity at all about what you’ve all agreed to.

The reason you give a presentation is to make a sale. So make it. Don’t leave without a “yes,” or at the very least, a commitment to a date or to future deliverables.

Bullets Are For the NRA
Here are the five rules you need to remember to create amazing Powerpoint presentations:

No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken.
No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.
No dissolves, spins or other transitions.
Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have. If people start bouncing up and down to the Grateful Dead, you’ve kept them from falling asleep, and you’ve reminded them that this isn’t a typical meeting you’re running.
Don’t hand out print-outs of your slides. They don’t work without you there.
The home run is easy to describe: You put up a slide. It triggers an emotional reaction in the audience. They sit up and want to know what you’re going to say that fits in with that image. Then, if you do it right, every time they think of what you said, they’ll see the image (and vice versa).1

Sure, this is different from the way everyone else does it. But everyone else is busy defending the status quo (which is easy) and you’re busy championing brave new innovations, which is difficult.

After seeing Seth present in person, I totally changed the way I present.  I follow these rules as closely as I can.  People still ask for copies of my slides, even though they don’t help very much without me there, and I do make slides available on slideshare. I think the slides act as a souvenir of the presentation, or as a template for others to try to follow.

But the secret here for everyone is that people can’t take in two language inputs at the same time- just think how hard it is to talk on the phone and write an email at the same time- you can’t do both.  So likewise, when you are speaking, if you have too many words on the slides, people read the slides and don’t pay any attention to what you are saying.  We need to teach everyone, especially students, to use slides as illustrations, and demonstration points of a talk- the “show” portion, and leave the “telling” to the person presenting.

Give it a try, and see how much of a difference it makes.  And let us know how it works out for you!


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Where do Good Ideas Come From?

Jul 5, 2011 by

A group called the RSA in the UK has a fantastic series of lectures, and a series of “animates” – videos illustrating the lectures that are simply fantastic and amazing to watch.  I thought I’d share this one with you today, on “Where good Ideas Come From” by Steven Johnson.  This especially resonates with me as I think about the ISTE technology standards and how we can go about trying to “teach” creativity and critical thinking to kids in school.


Let me know what you think!