By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries from April 2011
Posts 1 - 12 of 12

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Increasing collaboration in classroom wiki projects

Of course there are variations on this theme, and the degree of collaboration can be stepped up. The teacher need not assign the topics but simply create them and allow the students to select their favorite topic and get to work.

Another variation is to assign a topic so that each student has primary responsibility for one article, but then also assign responsibility to edit two or three other articles that classmates are creating. This gets into a higher degree of collaboration. And it brings up one of the differences between collaborative work and individual work. That is, individual contribution can be harder to identify in collaborative work. So assessment can be more difficult. However, collaborative work will be increasingly important after the student leaves school so it's important to learn the skills of collaboration.

Typically, when multiple people are editing the same wiki page, the goal is to arrive at a consensus document. That's what Wikipedia is all about: Lots of people contributing to the same pages and settling their differences.

But maybe you want to emphasize differences. For example, you could build a wiki for which each topic had two documents, a male and female point of view or a conservative and liberal point of view. Or you could open up your wiki to another classroom in a different community or halfway around the world and maintain two perspectives for each topic, the local perspective and the perspective of the students in the distant classroom.

The examples above use wikis for creating the overall collection of documents but, for the most part, students are responsible for their own pieces. That’s good for keeping track of credit for work done but it isn’t always the way wiki collaboration is done.

You can require more collaboration by assigning not just one individual but a team to each article on the wiki. The members of the team all edit the same page and the resulting article is a team product, not distinguishable by individuals. What might be lost in terms of tracking individual effort is offset by developing the skills of collaborative work within teams.

An even more extreme example is to have the entire class work on one article. Let’s say you’ve assigned the class to write an article comparing the use of technology by high school students in school versus in their personal lives. The point of the assignment would be to participate in a collaborative project as it leads to consensus with a group large enough to have many differences of opinion and many personal anecdotes to call on. Since this project is likely to have some students hang back from participating, it would be a good idea to introduce students to wikis and collaborative work with more individualized or small-team assignments like those described above before moving to a many-author assignment like this one.

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Keywords: wikis, collaborative learning


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Example collaborative wiki projects

The particular advantage of wikis is that they foster collaborative work. Here's an example. A teacher starts a wiki for the class with an outline of the course. She then assigns students the responsibility for finding videos, news stories or other material that illustrates individual elements in the outline. In this way, the class collaborates to build a richly illustrated document about course content.

 The wiki expands as the grading period progresses. More and more detailed information is integrated into the wiki.  Students must consider the outline or organization of the material and where their contributions fit in. This provides benefits similar to concept mapping. By the end of the grading period the students have created a written representation of the topic which teachers can grade and give other feedback.

The teacher doesn't have to start with the course outline. She could start with one of the readings for the course. Students could elaborate on the arguments made in the reading.

Here's another possibility: imagine a class taking a field trip to the zoo and each student is assigned to write a report on one animal. The resulting wiki would contain descriptions of the zoo full of animals. In this example, the students aren’t collaborating on individual animal descriptions but each student can see the work of all of the others.

The “What I did on my summer vacation” assignment could be done as a wiki where entries are grouped by the type of activities described or by travel destinations.

Or let's say you have a long list of references on a topic such as climate change. Each student could be assigned the task of writing annotations on a set of the references. The result would be an extensive annotated bibliography, available to all.

There are as many possible wiki topics as there are course topics. You could start with a list of the Presidents, endangered species, insects, Shakespeare sonnets, applications of algebra, favorite pets -- the point is you can create a wiki about anything and make it an exercise in collaborative work.

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Keywords: wikis, collaborative learning


Monday, April 25, 2011

Student collaborative learning with wikis

Collaboration during learning obviously has the potential to improve collaboration skills such as coordination of effort and social interaction. Students learn how to get along and deal with others on a team.  Collaboration is increasingly important in the workplace. The more able students learn to help those with less knowledge or skill.

Moreover, much research suggests that students learn better in a collaborative environment when compared to competitive or individualistic environments. Encountering diverse perspectives is beneficial to learning. Groups of learners also share their cognitive resources (e.g., working memory), which are very limited in individuals.

Wikis are web tools that make it easy to collaborate. The idea of a wiki is a collection of webpages that anyone can edit with an easy-to-use online editor. The key idea of a wiki is that for any page, anyone can make a change. In order to make that work, wikis maintain history lists of the pages that are changed. If someone messes up the page, it's easy to simply revert back to a previous page in the history.

By far the best-known wiki is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Like all wikis, Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone. Early critics of wikis expected that the open model would result total chaos. However, we find in Wikipedia the world's most extensive encyclopedia with article quality rivaling the best edited encyclopedias. The success of Wikipedia demonstrates that the wiki notion that when anybody can edit quality can increase.

When wikis are used in the classroom, we find better writing as a result of improved integration of ideas due to collaboration. Classroom wikis foster writing in general and more thoughtful writing because entries must integrate what others say. Collaborative writing with wikis places more emphasis on organization of ideas due to the structure of wiki pages.

Classroom wikis are designed for classroom use so often include features not available in open-to-the-public wikis like Wikipedia. For example, classroom wikis are often password-protected to prevent people from outside the class from making edits. In some cases, teachers may choose to restrict the wikis so that even reading them is password-protected.

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Keywords: wikis, collaborative learning


Friday, April 22, 2011

Benefits of reflecting to a blog

So, you have a long-term project of wanting to improve your teaching. You’re recording daily reflections. You’re seeking the advice and insights of others. That is the description of the ideal motivation for a blog. Instead of making private notes in a notebook, post your reflections to your blog. Here’s how you’d use it.
  • Seek out others who are blogging on the same themes with their blogs (there are millions of bloggers out there, you will find some of like mind).
  • Seek out the blogs of others that you might consider in the category of mentor.
  • Link to those other blogs on your blogroll. A blogroll is the list of links to other blogs where you essentially say, if you like my blog you might also like these blogs.
  • Subscribe to the blogs on your blogroll with RSS. That way, you’re automatically notified when those other bloggers post something…especially useful for infrequent or irregular bloggers.
  • As you read the others’ blogs, leave comments to their posts and include a link back to your blog under your signature so they may choose to add yours to their blogrolls. As you become an active participant in the discussion on their blogs, they may become active making comments on yours.
  • When the posts of others inspire you to a new insight, create a post to your own blog about it and include a reference link to the other blogger’s inspiring post.

Cross-reading, cross-linking, cross-commenting and cross-posting builds among you a community of shared learning. Think of the opportunity: if your potential list of like-minded teachers is limited to those in adjacent classrooms at school, you’ll be lucky to find a lot of support. On the other hand, when you have the entire Internet to work with, and when it doesn’t matter if the others are down the hall or around the world, your opportunities are vastly greater.

There’s one more big advantage to seeking out others for a collaborative learning project like this. It’s easy to resolve to reflect. It’s easy to get a notebook and make the first few entries. But what makes reflection work is sticking to it over the long term. When you’ve set yourself up in the midst of a community, the momentum of the others will carry you along when your interest wanes. And a provocative post from you may motivate one of the others to return to his reflection. The community of common interest can take on a momentum of its own, sometimes carrying the members along with it.

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Keywords: reflection, blogs


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Facts are friendly

Several years ago I had a friend who would often say that facts are friendly. What she meant was that it's better to know the objective facts of a situation rather than speculate on scenarios, what-ifs and feelings about possibilities.

An example of the friendliness of facts is when trying to change habits. Let's face it, very few of us are good at keeping New Year resolutions. Whether we've resolved to lose weight, exercise regularly or learn a new language, the implementation of the resolution rarely survives a few weeks of effort.

One of the most successful ways to stick with a behavior change long enough to become a habit is to simply keep track. It isn't a guarantee of success, but it is one of the best ways to increase your likelihood of success. Keep a food log for losing weight or an exercise log for fitness or a simple tally of the days you studied your language lessons. For resolutions where you want to do more of something, such as a student's resolution to study more, keep track of hours studied each day.

Logging activity and especially logging hours used to be a burden. If one were highly motivated she might record events or hours on index cards and later tally them up. But that's a lot of work in itself and could be one of the resolutions that doesn't last.

Keeping track is easier with smartphones. First, it's convenient: the phone is always with you. Second, events can easily be recorded in a simple text file. Third, time recording apps are available to record start times and end times on a variety of tasks with a simple click. The app takes care of adding up the time spent on each task (e.g., studying vs. chatting with friends.) Fourth, timer apps are available that beep to remind you that it's 7 PM and you should be studying or that it's the top of the hour so if you're goofing off, get back to work.

Facts are friendly. Having the facts from logs and tallies about efforts to change habits does two things: it repeatedly keeps you aware of your intention and it confronts you with facts about how well you're sticking to your goals. It's similar to deliberate practice: being mindful about what you're trying to change rather than simply going through the motions. It's the same technique recommended by Ben Franklin and others for centuries before him, but is made just a bit easier with our smartphones. 

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Keywords: habits, deliberate practice


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reflection and continuous improvement

As the business proceeds, there will be mistakes. Some things will go badly. Some novel situations will arise. But the careful entrepreneur can continue to update and refine the processes. Over time, the business gets better and better at doing what it does.

As a teacher, as in every other vocation, you too will make mistakes. Some classes will go well, some will go less well. Sometimes you will end a class period on a positive and enthusiastic note and sometimes you will just run out of steam. But the key to continuous improvement in teaching is to maintain a habit of reflection (a reflection process, actually) about your teaching.

We learn from practice, but not all practice is the same. Deliberate practice, where we think about what a perfect performance is, try to achieve it, and then reflect on how to do better, is the most effective way to practice. Simply repeating the same performance without a conscious effort to improve is unlikely to result in much improvement.

The simplest way to reflect on your daily teaching experience is simply to keep a notebook of your thoughts each day, looking back over what worked, what didn’t and how you might improve next time. This habit of reflection and the continuous striving for improvement can be the basis for becoming a better teacher.

Another simple and revealing technique is to make an occasional video recording of yourself teaching.  Just  as athletes see things they didn’t know they were doing, you may find some surprises also.

As with any learning, learning through reflection is likely to be enhanced by discussing issues with mentors, other teachers and your students. Ask for help or for ideas on how to better address the issues. Ask students to rate the difficulty of a recent topic or the most interesting or most important part of the week’s lesson.

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Keywords: reflection, deliberate practice


Monday, April 18, 2011

Developing a business and developing a course

Here’s a sketch of how a small business might work. An entrepreneur has an idea for a product. She makes a few. Customers love it and want more. She makes more and sells more. Pretty soon she’s selling so much she needs to hire people to help her make even more. She’s growing and on her way to success.

What is her product? It could be anything. It might be delicious fudge just like her grandmother used to make. At Disney World the product is a fun day with the family that will be remembered for years. At Massage Envy the product is a relaxing massage in a clean and comfortable environment. At Dell Computer the product is a custom-assembled computer with just the features each customer wants.

The sketch above is a common image of entrepreneurship but it isn’t how successful companies are created. The problem is that the story above treats making and selling the product as the point of the business. It’s not.

Making and selling the product is necessary to creating a business but the business is actually the processes for making and selling the product. That’s what successful entrepreneurs do. They make the processes that are the business and then run the processes. Why? Because it’s far more repeatable and efficient for everyone involved.

An entrepreneur’s business processes needn’t be complex. Imagine a binder labeled How We Do It. In that binder are the steps for each process. Most of them are very simple: just a sequence of steps. Some are simple checklists. Some are recipes. Some may be more elaborate spreadsheets or even directions for operating purpose-built automated machinery.

The great advantage of the How We Do It binder is that someone other than the entrepreneur herself can open it up to a certain process and do that job. Getting the work done no longer depends on the entrepreneur herself. When an entrepreneur buys a franchise for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, that’s most of what she’s getting: the process, the How We Do It binder. (The other part is the brand name but that need not concern us here.) So there is a lot of value in the processes.

What does all this have to do with teaching? I am suggesting that you should create a set of processes, the product of which is children who understand algebra or who can write a lucid paragraph. Does it sound impersonal and cold? It shouldn’t. Disney has processes for reliably creating memorable family experiences. Massage Envy has processes for consistently delivering relaxing massages. There is nothing cold or impersonal about these businesses and there need be nothing cold or impersonal about your class. There is no reason why you can’t create processes for instilling in students an appreciation for the works of Shakespeare and then repeat it year after year.

Does thinking in terms of process imply mass-production education? No, just the opposite. Dell Computer builds each computer to order. Their processes allow for flexibility and customized products. Your teaching processes can do exactly the same, if you so choose. But just as Dell could never support custom computers without the appropriate computer support to manage the complexity, so should you realize that the appropriate tools can help you achieve new results in your classroom.

A well organized classroom gets the job done while giving you more time for individual instruction and making personal connections, not fewer.

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Keywords: entrepreneurship, processes


Friday, April 15, 2011

Save time with shared databases

You’ve no doubt heard the terms Web 2.0 or the Read/Write web. Where the original use of the web was primarily where a few people published information and a lot of people accessed it, the Read/Write web is about lots of people publishing. They use lots of technologies like social media, photo and video sharing, blogs and wikis but the point is that far more people are contributing information to the web, sharing it with others. And the more readily it can be shared, the better.

Here's an example of easily benefiting from the information shared by others. Nearly every class could benefit from a list of recommended books. That applies from the primary grades through high school. So we created a utility in School Site Manager to make it easy to create recommended book lists. It consists of a large database of books that are categorized by grade level and subject matter. Also, if they have won awards, that can be noted too. Now with the recommended books database, all a teacher needs to do is simply check off the books from the database that he would like to have on his recommended book list. He can make a different list for each class. If there are books he would like to recommend that aren't in the database, he just adds them. And then the books he’s added are in the database and available to everybody else to add to their recommended book lists.

The recommended books database illustrates two ideas.

  1. Online tools should save teachers work, not add to their workload.
  2. By allowing books that are entered to be available to everybody, the more teachers who use the system, the more valuable the system becomes to everybody.

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Keywords: time saving


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Keep parents working with you through email or SMS

Two common complaints from parents are that they didn’t know their child was doing poorly in time to help and they only hear from teachers when there’s bad news. With the proper tools, those are easy to fix.

Teachers often make use of e-mail in connection with their classes. For example newsletters e-mailed to parents can keep them informed as to what's going on in class. Even more useful is a targeted e-mail capability that allows teachers to easily send messages to large and small lists or parents. For example, a teacher could compose a welcome message to the parents of all the students in her class or could just as easily create messages for the parents of just those three students who didn't turn in their homework assigned for last night. A facility for easy, personalized emails to parents allows for more targeted, more personal, messages to parents. And it's an easy way to keep the flow of communication going between teacher and parent. Teachers can notify parents as soon as problems begin to develop. When emails are quick and easy, teachers can send out a quick notes to all parents with just a couple of lines about how well the book reports went this week. When it’s easy, and sending a message is not a big production, little snippets of good news and alerts to upcoming tests can be sent almost effortlessly. And that enhances parent involvement, which leads to higher student achievement.

Email to SMS
SMS (also known as TXT or text messages on mobile phones) is the prefered messaging medium for some folks. Nearly all cell phone providers have an email-to-SMS service. You can send an email to the recipient's phone number at a particular address and the message will be delivered as a text message on the phone. Some limitations apply, however.

  • While there is no cost to send the email-to-SMS message, the recipient will still incur their normal fee for receiving the message. Be sure to ask permission to send notes as text messages.
  • Messages are limited to 160 characters. It will include the subject line. Unlike many phones that will convert longer text messages to multiple messages, the email-to-SMS facility will typically simply truncate long messages.
  • Mail messages in plain text mode, not HTML mode. SMS messages do not understand HTML and the normally hidden markup characters may show to the recipient as unreadable junk.

Here are the email-to-SMS addresses for the most common carriers from http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/email-to-sms/. See that page for a more complete list.

  • Alltel
    • [10-digit phone number]@message.alltel.com
      Example: 1234567890@message.alltel.com
  • AT&T
    • [10-digit phone number]@txt.att.net
      [10-digit phone number]@mms.att.net (MMS)
      Example: 1234567890@txt.att.net
  • Sprint Nextel
    • [10-digit phone number]@messaging.sprintpcs.com
      [10-digit phone number]@pm.sprint.com (MMS)
      Example: 1234567890@messaging.sprintpcs.com
  • T-Mobile
    • [10-digit phone number]@tmomail.net
      Example: 1234567890@tmomail.net
  • Verizon
    • [10-digit phone number]@vtext.com
      [10-digit phone number]@vzwpix.com (MMS)
      Example: 1234567890@vtext.com
  • Virgin Mobile USA
    • [10-digit phone number]@vmobl.com
      Example: 1234567890@vmobl.com

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Keywords: parental involvement, email-to-SMS


Monday, April 11, 2011

Never grade another multiple choice test

Multiple choice quizzes taken online are superior to quizzes on paper for several reasons.
  • You don’t have to grade them. They can be graded automatically.
  • Easily administered quizzes give the opportunity for more frequent assessments. More frequent assessments have the dual benefits of providing incentive to students to keep up with the material and early identification of individual or class-wide need for review or misconceptions.
  • The results of quizzes can be used by teachers to determine what needs to be reviewed or explained in class.
  • Homework assignments can be implemented as quizzes providing immediate feedback to students and teachers about whether homework was completed and to what extent it has been understood.
  • You may allow quizzes to be taken a second time and then record only the highest score. This encourages the student to review material she missed to increase her score on the second attempt.
  • The time saved from grading quizzes can be applied to more subjective assessments such as essays and projects.
  • While not as abundant as lesson plans, quizzes can be found online
  • For quizzes that involve calculation, some quiz systems allow the numbers to be automatically randomized within limits while answers are checked based on the random values. Students can’t simply copy answers.
  • Practice quizzes can provide immediate feedback for right or wrong answers. In most cases, the student gets more feedback than she would get from a typical classroom quiz.
  • Quizzes with feedback are fun. It is no accident that quizzes and self-assessments are used so commonly in online advertising to learn about one’s health habits, financial intelligence, sexiness and personality. They’re fun and they bring attention to the advertiser. That same interest in quick assessment can carry through to biology or math class.

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Keywords: time saving


Friday, April 8, 2011

Never write another lesson plan

We find ourselves in an age of information abundance, thanks to the Internet. Among many other changes, lesson planning has become a process of organizing content that's available online rather than generating it from scratch.

Content selection and filtering is changing the way material is presented to students. A short time ago, the challenge was finding good, engaging material to present to students. No longer. Today, there is an abundance of material available. There are databases of lesson plans, enrichment material from textbook publishers, videos on YouTube, copyright-free books and images and access to images of the great art collections of the world.

Today, a teacher can seek and find too much material so show. So she must use her judgment to select those that best fulfill or complement her teaching goals. Or possibly, she could show different materials to different student groups.

This is an example of how the Internet is helping teachers improve their teaching yet requiring that they do less work. That's the goal.

As a result of all this stuff, creating lesson plans from a blank sheet of paper is no long the way to start. Rather, start by looking for available lesson plans and materials that fit and then tailor them to your purpose.

Just as critical, however, is the process of reflection. However wonderful some content is anticipated to be for the class, the proof is in how well it works to convey understanding of the lesson. You can only truly know that when it is applied in the classroom. And, based on that experience, notes about presentation and emphasis are still crucial for making the lesson better next time.

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Keywords: lesson plans, time saving


Monday, April 4, 2011

If your school had to close for a while, could you continue to teach?

In August, 1665, Cambridge University closed due to the threat of the Great Plague. The students left and one particular undistinguished student continued his studies on his own on his family’s farm. The story is that while there, he saw an apple fall from a tree, had the insight that the force that pulled the apple to the earth was the same force that caused the motion of the moon around the earth. He eventually expressed his insight as the Universal Law of Gravitation. His name, of course, was Isaac Newton.

Schools closed in Hong Kong for SARS, closed in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia in 2004 under thread of terrorist attacks, closed in Mexico and in some parts of the U.S. due to swine flu. Extended school closures for disease, terrorist attacks, war, floods and other calamities are nothing new. But what is new is that today, teaching and learning can continue online, even if none of the students or faculty set foot in the school building and even if they’ve dispersed into the countryside or around the world. Teaching can continue online.

As with other online courses, the first step is to establish communication. Make sure the students and parents can access class information on the website and can take part in online discussions. During a time of crisis, the online discussions may prove to be one of the most valuable parts of the services the school provides. People will need emotional support. Parents and students are not only going to need to contact the school but to contact one another for personal comfort and reassurance.

Another benefit of continuing online instruction during a time of crisis is to establish a sense of normalcy. Students will be calmed and reassured that despite the emergency, life goes on.

Not only should lessons appear on the website but a special effort should be made to feature students work. When students see their own work or the work of their classmates displayed on the website it will reinforce the idea that everyone is getting back to work despite the unusual circumstances.

There are two most likely impediments to transition to virtual classrooms during a time of crisis.

  1. The first is that student and parent email addresses may not have been collected and be ready to use. A lot more online communication will be necessary when switching to a virtual school during time of crisis. Be ready.
  2. The second likely impediment to transition to virtual classrooms is that many teachers may not have adopted the use of web technology in their classrooms. Typically a few teachers adopt web technology enthusiastically, more log on once or twice never to return and many never use the web technology at all. If they’ve taught all these years without it, why should they learn it now?

Training on the new technology under crisis conditions is likely to be problematic. Therefore, one of the best ways to prepare for switching to virtual classrooms in an emergency is to ensure that all teachers become comfortable with the use of web-based technologies in their everyday classroom teaching.

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Keywords: virtual classrooms

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