Thursday, May 22, 2014

How Technology Has Engaged All Learners

This week I am giving some guest bloggers the opportunity to share their ideas with you. This is a guest post from Scott McKenzie

Every student can succeed.
That is what I want to talk to you about.
Every. Student. Can. Succeed.
We just have to find the way to help them do it.
This year… technology has leveled the playing field in my class for all students.

When I was young I didn’t fit in at school. I dreaded Valentine’s Day. Everyone would bring in cards for the people they liked. I would bring in one for each classmate and go around and hand them out. Then I would sit back at my desk, and try to hide the fact that my bag was empty. I would quickly stuff it into my desk. I didn’t fit in, and I wasn’t engaged in school. Later in high school I was told that I wouldn’t be able to pass advanced courses, and that I would never go to University. I eventually graduated with an Honours degree and went on to get my Bachelor’s of Education.

I share my story with my students every year, I mention that I didn’t feel like I fit in, that I was told I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my dream and go to university. I try to share with students that everyone is important, everyone has a voice, and their dreams are always worth pursuing.

As educators we have to be open, and willing to seek out alternative ways to enable learners and foster success in our students. If we show we believe in them, and give them tools to truly become successful, then we have earned the title "educator".

Have you ever felt like you didn't fit in? Imagine being 2 to 3 grade levels below everyone else in your class, and trying to fit in. Imagine how hard it would be to disguise that fact in class every day.That was the reality for several of the students who came into my class this year. They struggled in school, and everyone knew it. They didn't fit in.

This year technology was our secret weapon. With technology my students could get past the hurdles of not being able to read, or spell at grade level. I brought in BYOD, so everyone could use technology, and everyone looked the same. Things were going better, but technology is not perfect, and the motivation dropped off, as they sometimes still struggled. I was searching for the key, but I forgot to ask the most important people in the room. I never asked the students I was trying to help. One day I assigned a task in class. I offered them the choice of several ways to complete the task. Many of the choices involved technology.

One boy approached and asked if he could use Minecraft. It was a game he played regularly at home on his iPad. It was something he was confident doing. I took a chance, and said yes. The speed and efficiency he worked at was literally stunning. He completed the same work as the others, in the same time limit. Letters that were often formed backwards, or even upside down were perfectly written for all the key points. Visual images explained all the concepts he had learned, and he even shared!

Since that day Minecraft had become a viable option in my class. All the students who struggled with reading and writing were proficient at Minecraft. Visually they could map out how to show their work in the 3D landscape. Other students worked with it as well, and that is when the magic happened. The students who were used to being the lowest were suddenly helping others in the class. They became our experts, working with others to help them be successful. They gained the esteem of their peers, but more importantly, they gained their respect.

Now when students are given a challenge, every hand goes up. Everyone feels empowered. They never miss class, even when they are sick! They have become fearless, they tackle every situation with this new found confidence, and work away at problems until they are solved.

Through technology we were engaged as a class, working together. We had built a community that everyone felt a part of. where every student is successful.

The Design Of Information - Empowering Students To Create Authentic Visuals

This week I am giving some guest bloggers an opportunity to share their ideas with you. This is a guest post from Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac. 

Students with access to tablets, laptops, and digital devices today are blessed with a wealth of visual resources at their fingertips. At the same time, they are inundated with graphics from smartphones, streaming media, and video games. As a consequence, rightly or wrongly, most children think of themselves as visual learners. The potential is steep for apps and web tools that invite students to create their own educational images. The risk, however, is that these pictorial projects will fail to actually illuminate any information and will instead result in a mess of colors, layouts, and fonts.

We’ve been experimenting this year with a few specific iOS and Internet resources to emphasize visual design as a way of adding context to content. We abide by the strict saying, “Content first, pretty second.” At the same time, we try to introduce students to the importance of visual displays in communicating information cleanly and effectively. These visual skills center on decoding and encoding. Students can “read” images to comprehend the essential meanings, and they can also generate graphics themselves to demonstrate thematic mastery.


Our middle schoolers, for example, use the Smore website to create digital portfolios of their work. They curate their creations across all of their subjects, storing them in a sharable digital archive. Smore is a free, flexible, open-ended resource originally billed as a tool for designing posters and flyers. Its user-friendly nature to embed and link media, however, makes it an ideal space for students to collect their visual projects. Teachers, too, can use Smore for cataloging class portfolios, to share electronically with parents and to maintain safely in a cloud-based platform.

Infographics also make for elegant visual presentations to arrange facts and figures. Although infographics have saturated the modern business climate, they are still emerging in the educational world as canvases for student work. Our students use the Visualize and PicCollage apps on their iPads to fashion social studies graphics about country statistics. Because they blend words, pictures, and data, infographics can be key tools to simplify and reimagine course material. They also make children aware of the media potential for bias in advertising. Even elementary learners enjoy the practice with color, fonts, and layout as they refine the clarity of their images.

Sketchnoting can offer another avenue for marrying class content with students’ individual learning preferences. Our students combine multi-sensory note-taking with the interactive possibilities of Thinglink. Sketchnoting by hand is an expressive, higher order process of capturing information that offers choice in exploring the visual metaphors of a day’s learning. Then, students can photograph their drawings using the iPad and upload their images to Thinglink. They annotate their illustrations with Thinglink hot spots, featuring paragraphs from their class blogs. These dynamic designs can be embedded or shared via social media like Twitter.

Overall, our students appreciate that well-designed visuals are rewarding in personalizing the understanding of content. As teachers, we see improvement in the way children internalize content and look carefully at their creations. This literacy in rendering optical inputs speaks to the interrelated nature of our students’ visual world.

Mercer Hall and Patricia Russac are K-8 teachers and media specialists in Roslyn, New York. They are also the co-founders of The American Society For Innovation Design In Education and co-editors of the ASIDE blog (@theASIDEblog), whose work has been featured in Edutopia, EdTech Magazine, and other outlets. They write about technology and literacy in publications such as ISTE’s Learning & Leading With Technology, Edsurge, and Al Jazeera.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Good Chrome Extensions for Students with Disabilities

This week I am giving some guest bloggers the opportunity to share their experiences with you. This is a guest post from Clint Winter. 

I am lucky because I get to be an Instructional Technologist in the Clarke County School District in Athens, Georgia. Our school district is a 1:1 district in grades 3 to 8. Also, we are a Google Apps for Education District. Our teachers are using electronic devices in order to better differentiate for our students. I have been working with our district Assistive Technology Team to help identify useful chrome extensions for our students with disabilities. We like chrome extensions because our students can sign into their chrome browser and take their extensions with them! Our team decided to focus on the areas of organization and accessibility when finding extensions for our students with disabilities.

Since we are also a Google Apps District many of our teachers are encouraging their students to become better organizers with the Save to Google Drive Extension. This extension is very beneficial for our students. Students can quickly save web pages and images straight to their google drive to be able to evaluate later. Also, for organization, our students are utilizing the Google Calendar Extension. Google Calendar extension allows our students to set reminders on their calendar to turn in assignments, have classroom materials ready, and also to receive a daily agenda of what they will be doing for the day. This helps our students better plan out their day. Many of our students that we serve have deficits with organization and these two tools are helping to overcome that barrier.

For some of our students with reading deficits we are using Chrome Speak or Announcify to have web content read aloud. Students like Announcify because the text that is being read aloud is the main focus of the screen. Also, we use Readability to help students with print deficits. This extension removes the clutter from a webpage and focuses on the main article. Our students can choose to make the text larger or smaller based on their needs. These extensions are helping us make our 1:1 devices accessible for everyone.

Differentiation is a crucial part in a 1:1 environment. Chrome extensions are dismantling barriers that have long been put in place. Students with disabilities typically have teachers or peers assisting with gaining access to curriculum, such as having to be called out of the room to have text read aloud or being pulled for a class to work on organization skills. With the use of Chrome extension our students with disabilities are gaining independence and are in control of accessing the curriculum which fits their best learning style.

Clint Winter is an Instructional Technology Specialist with the Clarke County School District in Athens, GA. Before working in Instructional Technology Clint taught Middle School Special Education for 12 years. You can follow Clint on Twitter @ClintWinter.

Your Principal Dismisses the Value of Technology in Your Classroom...Now What?

This week I am giving some guest bloggers space to share their experiences. This is a guest post from Alicia Roberts. 

Communication is king. But what happens when your message is vetoed from the top before you can share with the masses? Here is the story (from my perspective) of how we should all consider rewriting the definition of the value of technology in the 21st century.

I could see my students using technology for entertainment, social networking and balancing their schedules all day long...and yet my campus wouldn’t support harnessing that same technology for classroom application. Dismissed and discouraged...what was I to do?

Searching through academic solutions to my problem I stumbled upon The Broader Value of Communication (link opens as a PDF) and came across this fantastic observation...

The poorer you are, the more valuable communication is. People with little money are often willing to spend up to 40 percent of their earnings on mobile services. To them, each call is an investment from which they expect a positive return. And the value of communication is by no means only monetary.

I knew the students on my campus understood the concept well. My students attached great value to mobile services they believed increased the size of their social network, improved their GPA’s through access to relevant material, and provided them a global market to barter within. Many of the students on campus did not have money, but they embraced the value of being plugged in without hesitation. The same was true for a large portion of the staff.

Using my new found perspective I re-coined the phrase technology integration to something a little more well defined: Technology for a Purpose. The “buy in” on campus was based on the idea that technology use didn’t have to be high tech. “Technology” was not the important thing; the important thing was using “it” in the right way. Empowering students and staff to refine their use of technology as a well developed tool of communication was and is the noble cause I had been trying to articulate without success.

I am now enjoying watching the fruits of a collaborative integration of student devices. The ideas shared below won’t require money, teacher in-service hours, or rewriting a curriculum map. Just time :) And honestly, I found that it didn’t take long before that first inch of progress turned into a country mile of success.

Alicia Roberts is the Instructional Technology Specialist at Paradise Valley Christian Prep in Phoenix, AZ and EDU Development Specialist at Grand Canyon University. For more tools and trends check out Teach2Inspire.com!

The Technology Workflow of An Assessment Task

This week I am giving some guest bloggers the opportunity to share their ideas with a larger audience. This is a guest post from David Wees. 

In our work with New Visions for Public Schools, we use rich mathematical tasks such as the ones from the Mathematics Assessment Resource Service (MARS) as common assessments for teachers to use as formative assessment tasks. This allows teachers to collect information on their student’s performance and at the same time have evidence of their thinking prompted by the mathematics of the task.

The available MARS tasks do not always align with our unit perfectly and so I occasionally create tasks similar in structure to the MARS tasks to fill the gaps.

Here is the workflow:
1. I start by creating a draft of the assessment task in Google Drive, which allows me to share the task and get feedback from my colleagues, both in person and online. Here is a sample task that I created that because of the feedback, we decided not to use.

2. I download a copy of the assessment as a PDF, and open it in Adobe Photoshop to shrink and crop the task so that each page is exactly the right size for use as a watermark.

3. Using Datacations’ Data Driven Classroom (DDC), I create an exam template, which our data specialist Erik Laby downloads. Full disclosure: We have a grant from DELL that funds our use of DDC.

4. Once Erik has a generic template and an exam template for each teacher’s students downloaded, he runs a script in Adobe Acrobat Professional which uses the cropped assessment tasks and overlays them onto the exam templates as watermarks. Here is a sample of what the first page of a task looks like after processing.

The bubbles on the right are where teachers record their scoring decisions, and where DDC collects the data from the task after the scanned version is uploaded.

5. Our mathematics instructional specialists then email the PDF files to the teachers they support, and those teachers decide when to give the tasks to their students, and then using a rubric shared by us in Google Drive, score the tasks. The teachers then scan the task, and upload it back to DDC, where if everything goes smoothly, the data from the task is recorded and automatically analyzed by DDC. A side-benefit of this process is that we end up with access to scanned copies of student work.

One challenge we found is that if the task is not printed exactly correctly, or if in the scanning process the pages become misaligned too much, then DDC has a hard time reading the data from the scans, and as a result, we have to correct these errors manually.

6. Teachers then have access to data reports in DDC, which include error analysis, item analysis, and an overall summary, and can then use the data to inform their instruction. This is another area where we are exploring using Google Spreadsheets to give teachers a more detailed and unit-specific analysis.

7. Erik also exports the data back into Google Drive, where he uses it to create data dashboards which contain analyses (such as unit by unit comparisons or pre-post task comparisons) not available in DDC. One requirement here is that we use Google Apps for Education for storing our data since it meets the requirements of FERPA and the free version of Google Drive does not.

8. Finally, in department-based inquiry teams at each school, teachers choose a few target students and study their work on the assessment task in detail. This allows them to collaborate to find evidence of student thinking, analyze this evidence, and decide on instructional next steps for these students that can further inform their instruction above and beyond what is possible with just the aggregate information alone.

This workflow allows us to meet some of the goals of our project, which are to;
  • promote the use of rich mathematical tasks, 
  • collect and study evidence of student thinking in collaboration, 
  • use evidence collected on these assessments to help inform instructional decisions.

If you are interested about learning more about this project, please contact David Wees at New Visions using the email address: dwees [at] newvisions [dot] org.

David Wees is the formative assessment specialist for New Visions for Public Schools. He has taught in four different countries, and has his masters degree in educational technology from UBC. On his blog, he shares his thinking on education, mathematics, and educational technology. He can also be found on Twitter at @davidwees.


Erik joined New Visions in 2012 as a data researcher. He brings experience in educational program evaluation, curriculum, educational media and assessment materials. Erik holds a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently pursuing an M.A. in educational psychology from Hunter College.