Saturday, May 14, 2011

Go Virtual - Essentials for online synchronous programs

In August 2009, I went from being a principal in a classroom-based high performing school in Chula Vista, California to launching a start-up charter school for K-8 students. Backtrack to two years before August 2009 and I’m sitting in a principal’s meeting when I had an epiphany. “Why not deliver public education online?” I was the tech guru principal among my cohorts and I had done a lot of online instruction for graduate students. It would be simple. The hard part would be writing a charter and getting it approved. At least that’s what I thought.

Now fast forward to today where I am completing my second full year of chief inventive officer at Ecademy California. Of course, the difference between having a novel idea and putting into practice while holding to California’s rigorous standards, is the difference between thinking about running a marathon and training for one. Getting the charter approved was almost too easy. Creating a robust online program that could meet the needs of elementary and middle school students who are participating in live meetings all day every day has been a great learning experience. It been far from easy and I’ve worked harder in this venture than I have in any other professional endeavor. The jury is still out on whether this learning model will “take-off” in a big way for K-8 but my hunch is that it will in time. I believe the east coast is ahead of the rest of the country in this regard.

I thought there may be readers of this blog who are either involved in online programs, hybrid programs, or traditional schools considering online components. While I claim no special expertise in this area, I have learned some things about what I think are essential components of an online program. In particular, I am referring to synchronous online learning where students and teachers are working from home but participating in live meetings.

1. Choose an affordable but robust learning management system

When I began researching learning management systems, I contacted Blackboard because it was what I was already familiar with. A university colleague of mine suggested I also contact Adobe Connect. The university had been using it for staff meetings and reported liking it. Adobe Connect isn’t free (I know there are some free learning management systems out there) but one of my priorities was to work with a company I knew would be around for awhile. Cost was also a factor. Adobe’s licensing fees for schools was more than reasonable. Connect included: the ability to record all meetings, full hosting, built-in VOIP and video, content management, and Flash-based “pods” for document sharing, whiteboards, note taking, chatting, and web-links. Finally, Adobe Connect, while a business application, was user-friendly for students and teachers. I’ve included some screen shots below that demonstrate some of the ways we have used
Adobe Connect.

2. Choose cloud-based productivity tools

Given the number of blog posts about Google Docs, I probably don’t need to say much about the importance of having anytime, anywhere access to documents. When we began, we used Zoho for Business. I have nothing but good things to say about Zoho for business - they are in many ways ahead of Google with their productivity tools. However I found their technical support team difficult to communicate with. Response time was also lacking. I worried that they might eventually be purchased by Google or another large company so I migrated all of our productivity functions including e-mail and intranet to Google enterprise for education. I particularly like the fact that with Google’s free .edu services to schools, students and teachers can work collaboratively within relatively secure environment.

3. Curriculum matters

When we were in our planning stages, we were writing our own units of study which turned out to be incredibly labor intensive, expensive, and slow. After completing complete units for grades 5-8 in math, English, social studies, and science, we estimated each unit of study (4-6 weeks work) to take 40 hours to complete. Each grade level would need approximately 10-12 units of study per content area. All educators know that curriculum (packaged or home grown) is the heart of any educational program because it helps set professional development priorities, determines what supplemental materials/programs will be needed, directs how assessments and rubrics will be used, establishes how teachers will articulate from grade level to grade level, and provides support for students in special or bi-lingual programs including English Language Learners. The lesson here is, don’t underestimate the complexity or importance of curriculum when thinking about launching an online program. If you already have a reliable adopted curriculum make sure you have thought carefully about how well it integrates and communicates between your current classroom based program and the online model you are developing.

4. Communication is essential

One might think that communicating with students and parents online would be easy. While there are some exceptions, the vast majority of people do not read e-mail in a timely manner. My guess is that e-mail has become for most people a kind of white noise. In boxes are swollen with junk mail interspersed with important items that may or may not get noticed. Since communication is such a critical component of any successful online program, there needs to be a tool through which all stakeholders can stay current with assignments, grades, and critical dates. While we use e-mail for many things, we have added engrade (a free technology in Google’s education app store) to great effect. In addition to a grade book and attendance tool, students can download and submit assignments, parents can message teachers, and students can access tools/resources for their studies. It’s intuitive, simple to use, and free for everyone. In today’s difficult budget climate, I call that a win-win.

In closing, I have been engaged throughout this process with thought partners who have been generous in helping me think about how to create an online school that can compete with other model schools. By reaching out to smart people in education and technology fields, I have taken baby steps toward creating a school of the future. If you are looking for a thought partner to help you, I am happy to return the favor or put you in touch with some of the folks who helped me.

Information About the Author:
David Damico has been a counselor, educator, author and school administrator for more than 23 years. He has a Multiple Subject Teaching Credential and an Administrative Services Credential. Before starting Ecademy California, Mr. Damico was the principal of Joseph Casillas Elementary School in Chula Vista, California. During his time as principal he worked closely with the Ball Foundation and National University to promote professional learning communities and deepen school-community partnerships. This work led him to create a technology-based charter school. In 2009, David launched Ecademy California. David received his Bachelors Degree from San Diego State University in 1982 and his Masters Degree from the University of San Diego in 1997. He is a post graduate fellow of the Institute for Dialogical Psychotherapy and a past member of the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. David has authored and published two books, The Faces of Rage (a book about dealing with grief and loss) and The Influential Parent (a book for parents with teenagers).

When working with K-2nd grades, it’s often the case that students are able to verbally communicate their ideas, but typing those out is another matter.  Using, we solved this issue for a second grade class that was creating slideshow presentations. is a web service that lets you create effective presentations through your PowerPoint files.  What makes this site unique, is it lets you add a narrative to the presentation. Once you upload your PowerPoint, you can record a narrative through your webcam and microphone as if you were presenting the slideshow. The final presentation then appears with your webcam recording on the right and slides on the left. A filmstrip view of the slides is also given on the bottom of the presentation. 

The elementary school I was working with used Google Docs, then converted the presentation to a .PPT file, which Present.Me only accepts.  After the presentation is uploaded, it is queued for the students to record their own words to describe each slide, and time when they want each slide to advance. 
Once they are finished recording, they have the option to record the presentation again if not satisfied with what they did.  Otherwise, you can then publish the presentation, giving it a unique URL that can be shared with anyone. The free plan of only lets you publish up to 10 recordings per month; each of these presentations can be 15 minutes long. Having the students work in groups allowed the class to stay under the ten recordings limit.  

While we used with the primary grades, it could be just as useful to any other age group. 

Troy Kuhn is an instructional technology specialist in Texas for Bryan ISD. Visit him now at his blog Troy's Tech Tips, the district technology blog he manages Techy Things Teachers Should Know, or follow him on Twitter.

Individualized Technology Plan Helps Student with Autism Achieve Learning Goals

October 3, 2010:
“Michael, what is 2 plus 0?”
“What is 2 plus 1?”
“1?” “2?”
“What is 1 plus 1?”

January 10, 2011:
“Michael, what is 7 plus 8?”
“5 plus 5?”
“9 plus 3?”

Michael is a third grade student with severe Autism Spectrum Disorder. At the beginning of the year, the extent of Michael’s math knowledge was filling out a number chart from 1 to 100 with 80% accuracy. He was not able to do simple addition, tell time, identify coins, put together puzzles, or identify shapes.
Michael’s parents were adamant that he attend a public school and be placed in a regular class and Michael enjoyed being with his classmates. However, Michael was not learning. He had a short attention span and the teacher covered new material very quickly. As Michael’s Dedicated Aide, I worked hard to keep him on track. I rarely had time to teach him fundamental skills.

Six weeks into the school year, Michael was still trying to learn addition, while the rest of the class was working on identifying quadrilaterals and solving word problems. I realized that if I did not take charge of Michael’s learning, he would continue to fall farther and farther behind. I knew he was capable of reaching his Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals; he just needed more individualized instruction and something to engage him in learning. I got permission from the Principal, his parents, and his teacher to pull him from the classroom for two hours every afternoon.

I brought my laptop and iPod Touch to school to see if technology would peak Michael’s interest in learning. I was amazed at how quickly Michael picked up the basics of using different technologies. Within minutes, Michael was using a mouse to navigate the computer and operating the touch screen on my iPod touch to find applications and play games.

Technology became the optimal learning tool for Michael. I used Michael’s IEP goals to create 3-4 smaller weekly goals. Then, I searched the Internet (and the FreeTech4Teachers blog!) to find online games, resources, and activities as well as iPod applications. I created a blended learning environment for Michael. He would spend 20-30 minutes on a computer game or iPod app, then I would give him a written quiz, and we would review his answers. Then, we would move on to the next skill set.

Here is an example of a typical 2-hour lesson plan:

Addition (0’s, 1’s, 2’s)
Time (Hours and Half Hours)
Motor Visual/Spatial Skills
Numbers to 1000
If we had time left over, I would let Michael play Angry Birds as a reward. He fell in love with this game and he worked extra hard every day just to play it for 5 minutes at the end of the learning block.

What Did Michael Learn?
Within two months, Michael achieved four out of five of his math IEP goals. He was able to add single digit numbers with 80% accuracy, tell time to the half hour, and write, count, and indentify numbers up to 1000 with 80% accuracy. He also solved 6 and 12-piece puzzles in less than 5 minutes and he was able to identify coins with 100% accuracy.

What Did I Learn?
I learned that it does not matter how far students are behind, if you engage them in learning and provide them with the right tools, they can achieve their academic goals. For Michael, technology was the ideal learning tool. The online games and iPod apps gave him instant feedback. He knew within seconds whether his answer was right or wrong. The games also provided Michael with a low-pressure learning atmosphere where he could try, fail, start over, and try again until he mastered the level or solved the problem. This kept him engaged and gave him the chance to succeed. While Michael was never able to put more than two physical puzzle pieces together without getting frustrated and giving up, he could solve a puzzle on the Let’s Tans iPod app in seconds. He would tap pieces to turn them, double-tap to flip them, and then slide them into the shape. His mind worked incredibly fast and Let’s Tans allowed him to try as many times as possible at a rapid pace. 

Technology changed the way that I taught. I learned how to mentor and guide rather than lecture. Instead of telling Michael how to solve a problem, I would let him try it on his own. When he couldn’t figure it out, I would teach him how to find the solution. Then he would try again. He would continue working until he needed my help again. Allowing Michael to control his learning pace and reducing the amount of new information he learned at one time helped Michael process the information better and retain it in his memory.

Finally, I realized that technology is only part of the learning experience. While technology engaged Michael in learning and provided him with feedback, I still guided and supported him. I spent time reviewing answers with him and helping him learn new material. I conducted ongoing assessments to determine how much time Michael should spend on each activity and whether he needed to learn additional skills. It was a combination of individualized instruction and new technologies that helped Michael achieve his learning goals.

My Advice to Teachers, Aides, and Educators
If you have students with disabilities or students that are below grade level in a certain subject, find technology tools that will help them achieve their academic goals and let them spend 20-30 minutes using those tools every day. Be available to answer questions, but wait until they come to you for help. Make sure to check in with these students when they finish to assess their progress toward their academic goals. You will be pleasantly surprised with how fast students learn to use new technology tools and how this opportunity will help the students become more self-sufficient and responsible learners. This will also allow the students to learn in a low-pressure, student-centered atmosphere.

Torrey Trust ( has a Masters of Arts in Educational Technology from San Diego State University. As the Technology Coordinator at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., Trust designed a database of technology tools (K-12 Tech Tools) categorized by subject, grade level, and standard to connect teachers with technology resources and make it easier for them to integrate technology into their lesson plans. This fall, she will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Education (Teaching and Learning) with a specialization in Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Week in Review - The Goslings are Back

Image Credit: Denise Blain
Good morning (day, evening) from Maine where I am happy to report that spring is officially here as marked by the return of a family of Canadian Geese that raised their young in the swamp next to our house last year. They're back again with more goslings. Just like me, the director of the Free Technology for Teachers walking program is very interested in seeing the geese every morning.

Here are this week's most popular posts:
1. Is Your State Short Changing Schools? - Infographic
2. Goodreads Makes Great Readers
3. Scrible - Highlight, Annotate, and Bookmark Webpages
4. Interesting Ways to Use an iPad in the Classroom
5. Google Search Tips Posters
6. New Sort By Subject Option in Google Images
7. A Brief History of Timezones - Interactive Display

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Edublogs provides blog hosting for teachers and students. is a provider of free educational games for K-5.
SimpleK12 is my blog marketing partner.

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Delegate Administrative Tasks in Google Apps

If your school uses Google Apps for Education, your administrator just got a new option for delegating tasks. Google now allows you to have "Delegated Administrators" of your Google Apps for Education domain. A Delegated Administrator is a person who has access to some administrative tasks, like password resets, but not all administrative functions. For directions on activating Delegated Administrators, see Google's announcement of the new function.

Applications for Education
At the beginning of the school year delegating the tasks of password management (creation or reset) to a handful of people in your school building could enable you to get students and staff using their Google Apps accounts faster than if just one person is responsible for that task.

Discover Yale Digital Commons

Image Source
Yale University has made more than 250,000 digital images available online. Discover Yale Digital Commons is the search engine for the Yale Digital Commons. Through Discover Yale Digital Commons you can search through the archives of five museums, libraries, and galleries administered by Yale.

The images in the Yale Digital Commons have been labeled Public Domain. Jock Reynolds, the Henry Heinz II director of the Yale University Art Gallery, in the announcement from Yale regarding the new Discover Yale Digital Commons, explains why Yale is doing this:
"Through this new university policy, scholars, artists, teachers, and students worldwide will now be able to more fully engage our collections for active learning and use in publications, classrooms, and creative projects without incurring any fees whatsoever, eliminating what has previously been for many a daunting financial hurdle."

Watch a slideshow sampling of the images available through Discover Yale Digital Commons.