Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reaping the Benefits of Twinlife

Somewhere in the back of my mind, where the fuzzy memories of early twinlife lie, I remembered this park. It sits on a hill inside a state park in our neighboring town. The last time I visited was when my kids were 3. We didn't stay long because my tired body could only chase the two of them, keeping them safe from themselves, for very limited periods of time. Plus, all the moms that day knew each other. I was an "out of towner" and as I chased my kids in two directions, I had no one to turn to for help.

But today we are back at the park, which is surprisingly deserted on this gorgeous afternoon. My kids jumped from the car, ran to the playground, calling, "Mama, there is a bench for you to sit!" They clearly didn't need, or want, me in their play area. As I write, they have created their own world, complete with medical bays and appropriate defensive battle stations. They are challenging themselves on the monkey bars and creating games on the tightrope. 

They are alone together in this park, and I can watch the beauty of it from my seat.

We are about to head back to school, and we will be running one of them to something every night of the week. Our Saturdays will run a full day. But for this moment, sitting in the breeze, I am reaping the benefits of twinlife, watching two best friends play like the kids they are.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reflections on Using Google Classroom

During the summer of 2014, I taught an online course called Media Literacy and Technology to students in the Fordham University Graduate School of Education.  When I create a course, I purposefully select digital tools that I believe will benefit my students when they are in their own classrooms as teachers.  I want them to engage as learners with these tools so that they can experience the frustrations - and the successes - of learning with and through technology.  Through this experience, they can empathize with their own students and reflect on the tools that would be most useful in meeting their classroom goals.

For the last few years I have used three platforms to interact with my students, and each of the tools has a distinct purpose.
  • I use Wordpress to push content to my students.  Because they can sign up for email  updates, students receive instantaneous notice of blog posts, and I post instructions for independent and online learning regularly.  I also house the syllabus, course documents and links to readings on password protected pages.  Wordpress also allows me to make my students authors on the blog, and I sometimes invite students to share their ideas with their peers.  Readers can, and do, respond to these posts, and I can also facilitate threaded discussion of course topics and readings through the comment features.
  • Because Wordpress does not easily allow for collaborative editing where individual contributions can be tracked, I use Wikispaces for students to collect resources, house portfolios, and write collaboratively.  
  • Dropbox has been my go-to tool for giving feedback on student work because of its ease of use.  Any file in Dropbox is like a file on my computer - I open, insert comments, click “save” and close the document, which is instantly synced to the individual student’s computer.  No need for uploading and downloading through email! Dropbox has allowed me to move from paper/pen grading to digital grading.  All student work in my courses has been submitted to Dropbox… until this semester.

This summer I was given preview access to Google Classroom, and I eagerly incorporated it into the Media Literacy and Technology class.  I had hoped that it would replace two of the three tools above - Wordpress and Dropbox.  Ultimately, it replaced Dropbox completely, but Wordpress was still essential to my course.  In an effort to reflect openly for my students on our use of this tool from my perspective, I’ve outlined what I liked about Classroom - and what I wished it could do for us as a community of learners.

What I Liked

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Making an assignment in Classroom is easy, especially if I have created a document in Google Drive.  For the assignment above, I asked students to review the syllabus and our course sites and complete a “scavenger hunt.”  I linked the syllabus to the assignment for everyone to view and download the file; however, I was able to send individual copies of the scavenger hunt to each student to complete.  They could edit their document directly and submit it without additional downloading, uploading, or even saving!  In the image, you can see that all 20 students turned in their assignments.

When I click on the “turned-in” section of the assignment, I see a list of the students who are ready to be assessed.  

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I click the name and Classroom takes me to the individual’s document, where I can add comments.   Then on the screen shown above I can “return” the assignment with an overall comment, and, if I desire, provide a grade.  For me this was the best part of using Classroom.  The response process was streamlined, and it easily replaced Dropbox as my submission tool for student work.  Though Dropbox saved me time, Classroom saved me more! From the front page to the response page, it was easy to see who had or had not completed the assignment, to engage in conversation with individual students, and to give feedback on written work.

These features - the ability to create individual copies of digital assignments with a push of a button and the ability to respond easily to student work - make Classroom worth using in a K-12 setting, and it could certainly replace Dropbox in the assessment portions of my university courses.

What I Wish It Could Do
Unfortunately, Classroom could not become my course management tool.  Many of my wishes can be wrapped up in one BIG wish -  I wish that the stream were not linear.  The Internet is not a linear place, and therefore, much of the interacting and thinking that we do in cyberspace is not linear. Classroom, however, is set up as a linear stream with no way to navigate it other than scrolling up and down.  Even in my short summer semester, the chronological linear stream didn’t work well, especially for me as the instructor.  I can imagine it would be even more cumbersome in a full-year class where I wanted to look back over time and to check in on student work.  Here are some specific wishes that link to the idea that learning is - or should be - networked, and the tools we use should help us to leverage that network.

Online Discussions
When I am facilitating online learning, I think carefully about how to create quality conversations among learners.  Just as I would in a face-to-face conversation, I encourage my students to do heavy thinking through authentic discussion - not simply to respond to a question I pose.  In literacy education, we call this type of pattern IRE - the teacher Initiates, the student Responds, and the teacher Evaluates that response.  IRE patterns place the teacher as the sole expert in the room and do little to foster creative and critical thinking on the part of students.  Rather, in my courses, I ask students to debate ideas openly with each other as they form their views of the world.  In the virtual realm, I have been most successful at facilitating these types of discussions on threaded discussion forums where students can respond to individual comments and extend portions of conversations.  Classroom does not yet allow for threaded discussions, so any “discussion question” I posed became, in effect, a call and response.  Though my graduate students did read through each other’s responses and reference them in their own (at my request), it was difficult to follow any one thread of an argument because responses posted chronologically, rather than topically or in response to each other.

I would also like to be able to track responses to discussion questions, just as I can track submissions to other assignments.  The first step in my assessment of discussion participation would be to easily see how many posts an individual has made.  My next wish is to be able to click on an individual’s name within that post and have all of their comments displayed so I can see the quality of their responses and their overall thinking throughout the discussion.  Because I am emailed when a student comments on a discussion post, I can see these responses in my inbox.  But I would rather keep my inbox clear of this type of mail and manage it on the Classroom board.

Learning does not happen in a moment, but instead it happens through reflection on where you have been, where you are, and where you want to go next.  Sometimes a student needs to (or wants to) look back at work completed earlier in order to move forward in learning, or at the very least, to study for a test.  One thing I love about Wordpress is that it allows me to tag my posts so that I can easily archive material and students can find it at a later date without searching through all the back posts.  I wish that Classroom had this type of tagging feature.  At the minimum, I would want to tag different kinds of posts (assignment, discussion, announcement), but it would be helpful to be able to customize the tags to the course content as well.

Permanent Links
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Classroom has quite a bit of “white” space on the margins of the screen, and I would love to see that space be used with a tagging system, as described above, and with customizable widgets like Wordpress has available.  Links to Twitter feeds, websites, and other resources could be permanently displayed for student reference.

As I mentioned above, I love the ease in response that Classroom gives me.  There are two minor enhancements that would make assessment (and grading) a bit easier.  First, students are able to comment in response to my assessment of their work - which is great!  But it is easy for me to miss these comments because I am not pinged in any way.  So unless I specifically go back to check whether each student has added a comment, thus making the feedback loop a little more cumbersome, it’s difficult to take advantage of this feature.  Adding a notification flag on the front page and, perhaps, promoting the student’s updated assignment to the top of the assessment page would be helpful.  The same is true of assignments resubmitted.  I needed to double check frequently to see if anything had been resubmitted.  A notification on my home page would have been helpful.

Secondly, though I didn’t use the “grade” feature much for my summer course, I imagine it would be extremely helpful to classroom teachers to be able to export the grades they assign into a spreadsheet.  I do not believe that Classroom needs an internal grade calculator - Spreadsheets can serve that purpose well.  However, in the future, Classroom might embed a grade system that allows parents to check on student progress.  Most schools have these grade trackers online, and if the systems were streamlined, it would save teachers time in double inputting.  

Finally, and this is a big one, I want to be able to look at one student’s work (easily) across assignments.  Right now the only way for me to do this is to dig down into my Drive (where Classroom stores the folders of all the assignments I create), and search the student’s name.  I really hope Classroom can allow for teachers to click on a student’s name to (1) see at a glance what the student is missing, and (2) click through to any assignment over time.  This type of feature would be very helpful in assessment over time.

Community of Learners
One of the reasons I use Wikispaces is that it allows each individual in the class to put their stamp on our community.  Classroom is very much teacher-driven and teacher-centered, and I would like to see a space dedicated to the students as individuals.  This could be accomplished with something as simple as grouping the student avatars in some of the open white space, or it could be more involved by creating a “classroom community” page where students can post short bios, links to their personal or academic blogs, or other resources that they think their classmates might find useful.  This type of space would allow everyone in the community to recognize individual voices, and it would also shift the role of “expert” from being solely in the teacher’s realm. used to allow for this kind of individual space within a community, though I haven’t used it in several years to see how it has evolved.

Worth it
My students may have different reflections than I do on the stream.  Most of them told me it was easy to navigate, which was attractive to them.  I agree with the limited number of assignments in my course that the linear path was workable.  I imagine, however, that with a full-year course, it would become less manageable.  There were some other bugs that my students and I had to work through (e.g., they didn’t like being “red-flagged” for discussion assignments that they had completed; some couldn’t get their assignments to register as having been submitted), but overall, it was seamless from their use to mine.  I will continue to use Classroom as my assessment tool to replace Dropbox, particularly because of the way it allows me to read and respond to their work in a single platform. I look forward to seeing what new features the Google team has in store.  

Classroom will be available to GAPPS schools beginning this fall.  They are releasing this current beta version because it’s a useful tool for teachers now, yet they are continuing to improve its functionality.  If you try it, send them feedback!