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Google Classroom might have the largest edtech hype surrounding it than any other product in 2014.

I love using Google Apps for Education with my classes.  I became a Google Apps Administrator at my school in 2007 and managed it on my own since I found it so valuable.  I absolutely respect the work that Google does in other areas supporting education, and students.  I am always amazed at the number of programs Google invests in for the support of students and teachers.  I was also quick to sign up for early access to Google Classroom.

Now that its open for all GAFE accounts, I find it a bit of a letdown. ¬†Now this isn’t Google’s fault. ¬†It’s mine for having such high initial expectations. ¬†Yes, I bought too much into the promo video. ¬†I should have known better. ¬†I have been using some sort of class website or Learning Management System (LMS) since I began teaching in 2005. ¬†I currently use Canvas as my LMS of choice. ¬†Google doesn’t call Classroom an LMS, but instead often simply use the word “product.” ¬†I’m sure this is by design for two reasons. ¬†First it distances itself from comparisons to other more mature LMS products, and second it avoids using any extra jargon that teachers new to edtech might find¬†intimidating. ¬†I get it. ¬†Google has created (in a short amount of time I hear) a clean simple classroom tool. ¬†I think they are trying to position themselves at such a level that even the most technology-phobe can jump in. ¬†I don’t disagree with that strategy – we need more teachers jumping in. ¬†What I disagree with are click-bait sites (Buzzfeed, About, DailyGenius, etc.) spewing out drivel about Classroom completely revolutionizing education, or (just as often) restating a couple lines from Google and a link to the Classroom¬†site/video. ¬†I also have a bit of a hard time with my G+ and Twitter feed filling up with shares to those articles.

In it’s current form, Classroom is a polished version of scripts (like Doctopus) and not much else. ¬†It doesn’t do much else other than save students the time of clicking “Make a Copy” of an assignment that a teacher may share. ¬†It doesn’t do a good job of sharing resources either. ¬†I can’t imagine there are too many teachers that are willing to jump to Classroom, but that don’t have an existing website (or Google Site) for sharing resources like notes, video, links, etc. ¬†Google Classroom should be able to replace a Google Site, but it doesn’t. ¬†The grading system for assignments in classroom is terrible by LMS standards. ¬†You need to leave feedback on the document, and then give a score in Classroom out of 100. ¬†Not 25, or 8, only 100. ¬†How about a letter grade, or level of “mastery”? ¬†Nope; 100.

The Good News

Google really does have a “release early, release often” philosophy, so I am going to work under the assumption that this mantra applies to Classroom as well. ¬†So at least some of the hype may not be unfounded as Classroom represents the idea of a better LMS, just like the Pixel represented¬†the possibility of a high end Chromebook and what that represents for how we view and use devices.

Here are some of my thoughts of what Google may be working on bringing to Classroom:

  1. Resource Sharing. ¬†Yes, you can post links/notes in the About section. ¬†But I’m talking about having unit/module sections for organizing notes and other resources. ¬†Currently a teacher would have to use Sites for this, or possibly use a Google Sheet as a syllabus with links to other docs.
  2. Quizzes.  This is something that GAFE users have been accomplishing using Google Forms and scripts for some time. But it is still unwieldy and not useful for larger assessments.
  3. Discussions. Discussions in Classroom can currently be started as replies off of announcement. ¬†But there isn’t a good way to allow a student to start a discussion, to organize discussions, or to give feedback on posts (without being part of the discussion and being public.)
  4. ¬†Grading. ¬†I love Canvas’ Speedgrader and it would be great if Classroom had something similar. ¬†The ability to look at an assignment while at the same time be able to leave feedback in a rubric is very useful. ¬†I don’t think teachers should necessarily be forced to have all their feedback be placed on the document itself. ¬†That said, leaving feedback for students in docs or as comments/suggestions is indeed a wonderful way to leave feedback, especially while students are still working on the task. ¬†Students should also be able to be grouped for grading purposes.

So all those above are pretty much standard in any LMS available. ¬†But if Google is going to replicate what is out there, what’s the point?¬†Other than to have access to more student data I suppose.

I have some thoughts of my own for Classroom’s ‘to be added’ feature list.

Google Site Integration. ¬†I have been trying to think about this one. ¬†Should Classroom absorb¬†Site’s functionality to create pages? ¬†So a new tab in Classroom called ‘Site” where all the resources are posted. ¬†Or should Classroom somehow embed into sites? ¬†So a teacher can add Classroom elements (assignment, quiz, discussion.) So if a student goes to the class Site, they see a link to the posted task with the due date. ¬†Tasks would still show up in the Classroom stream. ¬†I’m still thinking on the best workflow on this one. ¬†But at least Sites provides the teacher with the ability to organize their classroom materials.

Peer Review. ¬†I’m not sure how many (if any) LMS’s really get this right. ¬†I want a student to be working on a task that has a rubric. ¬†That task has a due date. ¬†When they submit their work, it is opened up to a peer reviewer(s). ¬†That review also has a due date and a rubric for the feedback. ¬†Then, the original student has a second date to make any revisions taking the peer review into account. ¬†The final rubric could then include items regarding addressing their peer feedback. ¬†I think peer feedback is really important. ¬†I think a great LMS would really support this. ¬†The feedback process needs to be assessed to help ensure student’s recognize it’s value, and also so teachers are able to give feedback to their students on how they provide feedback to each other. ¬†The Inception of feedback.

Google has plenty of experience with LMS’s from their own Power Search courses, to their collaboration on Open edX. ¬†There’s a lot of experience there. ¬†I’m sure there is much more in the pipe. ¬†If there isn’t much else, then the hype is unfounded as better products already exist. ¬†Otherwise they are another failed splash like Pearsons Open Class (seriously, do people use that?)

Today I read an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by secondary teacher Joe Killoran titled:¬†Ontario’s grading guidelines get a big zero. ¬†I wanted to take some time to respond to some of Joe’s comments as he covers a lot of ground in the article. ¬†I have some disagreements with some of his views, and in the interest of professional discourse, I invite you to consider the following.

He begins by informing the reader that ¬†according to the Ministry of Education (MoE) that¬†‚Äúthe evaluation of learning skills and work habits, apart from any that maybe included as part of a curriculum expectation in a subject or course, should not be considered in the determination of a student‚Äôs grades.‚ÄĚ and clarifies that ¬†“students may not receive poor grades for lateness, misbehaviour, skipping, late assignments, laziness or inability to work with others.

Killoran then makes an odd statement about these learning skills: “these learning skills may be ‚Äúassessed‚ÄĚ …, they may not be ‚Äúevaluated‚ÄĚ (the use of two synonyms to convey different meanings puzzles many teachers) as part of the number grade.” ¬†First off, the fact that a teacher provides students a letter grade (E, G, S, N) is an evaluation of their learning skills, it just happens to be a letter instead of a number. ¬† So I suppose some teachers do find the difference puzzling. ¬†For the record, assessment is a process of gathering evidence to determine how students are progressing, and promote student learning through feedback. ¬†Evaluation is the final comparison to the standard for which you are grading. ¬†Assessment and evaluation are key components in teacher education (in my experience) as well as professional development. ¬†I certainly don’t have Killoran’s experience with finding these differences puzzling.

Killoran goes on to say that the MoE is “handcuffing” teachers by not allowing them to include an evaluation of learning goals in a student’s final course grade. ¬†He says that because of this, teacher’s cannot reward positive behaviors and deter negative behaviors. ¬†He affirms that learning behaviors is an important part of being prepared for their “adult lives and careers.” ¬†I would suggest that teachers who have difficulty in teaching student’s proper behavior without the use of “grades” do have issues. ¬†The inclusion of learning goal grades won’t be a solution. ¬†If “giving marks” was the answer, why do some students fail, dropout, or otherwise not achieve perfection. ¬†The simple answer is that grades are not enough. ¬†The second answer is a much longer one as to how research suggests our traditional grading system is not great at motivating students. ¬†This isn’t to say that there should be no consequences for negative behavior, just that grades aren’t the answer.

Killoran continues with: “There are bright students who can cram for tests and submit late assignments who excel in our system, just as there are determined, hardworking students who are never rewarded for their dedication.” ¬†I will agree that the system may need to change if this is the class in your classroom. ¬†Assessments that reward the ability to cram and excel should be changed or eliminated. ¬†Classroom work can be designed to reward hard work and deep understanding; teachers are doing this all the time.

Here’s where things get off the rails as Killoran discusses the MoE recommendation that students not deduct late marks or give work a mark oz zero: ¬†“These ‚Äúexperts‚ÄĚ (or ‚Äúedu-babblers,‚ÄĚ as they are called by many classroom teachers) argue that a missed assignment provides only ‚Äúzero evidence‚ÄĚ rather than ‚Äúevidence of zero.‚ÄĚ Imagine an employee attempting this Orwellian doublespeak at work, contending that their failure to repair a car, prepare a presentation, or analyze a quarterly report cannot be cause for punishment or dismissal because they did not even attempt the task and so cannot be said to have done it poorly.” I have a serious problem with this type of thinking from an educator. ¬†First, these are students not employees. ¬†Yes we are preparing them for their adult life – but they are not there yet. ¬†Comparing education and the “real world” are not good comparisons. ¬†Killoran wants to reward students who work hard, but I don’t want a heart surgeon who doesn’t know what he should, but she works hard and has a positive attitude, so she gets by. ¬†You also don’t get to choose which career to compare to. ¬†The¬†majority of software developed goes over budget and is late. ¬†The weatherperson on the news is wrong often yet somehow I see them on TV the next night. ¬†Teachers get to call in sick and have someone come in and do their work for them. ¬†Why not compare them to these aspects of careers in the “real world?” ¬†The second problem with this attitude is that school is about helping young people at a critical stage in their development. ¬†So the student whose parents are going through a divorce, or gets bullied at school, or is suffering with a yet un-diagnosed mental illness we should ignore and deduct marks all over the place. ¬†I agree with Killoran that we want students to become resilient, however, that is not done by punishing students. ¬†It is done through dialogue with your students, understanding their challenges, developing achievable goals with them and praising their success.

I would also say that deducting late marks at least creates an additional level of discontinuity in schools. ¬†These are students competing for seats in Universities and Colleges. ¬†If one teacher deducts marks and down the street one doesn’t, then we have a problem. ¬†If the deduction is a standard (i.e. deduct 10% per day late) then the difference is one teacher gives three days for an assignment and another teacher gives five days for a similar assignment.

In my opinion Killoran also twists the MoE’s view on ‚Äúmost-recent and most-consistent” assessment for the sake of his article. ¬†He states: “This means that a student who earned a 50 per cent for the first half of the year and a 90 per cent for the second half could be given a mark of 90, while a student who did the reverse could earn only a 50.” ¬†Yes, this is true if there was some sort of forced algorithm that teacher’s use for this type of evaluation (PS. there isn’t.) ¬†Teacher’s use professional development all the time. ¬†If we’re talking about an isolated unit on Dinosaurs, most recent would capture the assessments towards the end of the unit and make them more influential on a grade. ¬†It would not capture Mammals as most recent just because that unit comes after Dinosaurs. ¬†So it depends on the course you are teaching as to how this applies. ¬†Let’s look at Janet who goes into her summative activity and final exam with a 65%. ¬†She have been steadily progressing from earlier in the year when she was failing. ¬†She has been working diligently and earns a 90% on her end of year tasks. ¬†Now mathematically that would bring her mark to a 73%. I would conjecture that a student who earns a 90% on the exam knows the material pretty well. ¬†Should they perhaps be evaluated at a grade higher than the 73%? ¬†I think if you value (and reward) hard work, persistence, and resilience, then yeah, we should consider some professional judgement on the final grade. ¬†Should she get the 90%, well probably not since we also value (and reward) consistency.

Killoran adds another “real life” comparison: “Success or failure is determined by the sum total of one‚Äôs efforts in life, not simply how one has performed in the recent past. The sooner students learn this, the better off they will be.” ¬†Well, students make mistakes. ¬†Telling students they will forever be punished for a mistake is cruel and inaccurate. ¬†Lots of people make mistakes (like 100% of them.) ¬†So this doesn’t even apply to “real life.” We don’t fire a person at their first mistake. ¬†Will there be consequences? ¬†Yes, this is how students learn. ¬†Again, mistakes are how students learn. ¬†The research is supportive of this fact. ¬†In my math class, I want students to try things, to risk being wrong, make a mistake, and then learn from it. ¬†If students are simply wrist-slapped with grade deductions with no feedback or self reflection, then they are less likely to learn from these mistakes. ¬†If a student performs poorly on a quiz and otherwise is performing exceptionally, at the end of the year can we not think of that as a bit of a hiccup? ¬†Perhaps they were a bit sick, maybe they have a infant sister who was crying all night, maybe they just got dumped by their girlfriend. ¬†That’s why we think about consistency.

Killoran finishes with “The ministry‚Äôs approach to grading is well-intentioned but it does students no favours. Skills like meeting deadlines, showing up on time, and working hard matter in the real world. They should matter in school too.” ¬†A teacher should keep this in mind the next time a student is failing her class, or a lesson goes poorly, she returns tests a bit late, or she is less than at 100% because of a personal issue affecting her in some way, and when that happens she consider that he still earns 100% of her salary. ¬†Yeah, these “real life” examples just don’t apply the way that Killoran asserts that they should.

The Future of Brain Surgiosity

Posted: August 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

So I haven’t really worked out all the details, but I’ve been working on the following scene in a movie I’m considering making.

Scene: Al and Steve are standing around the water cooler discussing sports or something. ¬†And then…

Al: Hey, did you hear about this new method of brain surgery.

Steve:  Um, nope.

Al: Yeah, they use this new robot.

Steve: Ok

Al: And it was invented by this smart business guy.

Steve: With no neuroscience background?

Al: He’s really smart. ¬†And the whole thing is free.

Steve: I’m still getting over the “No neuroscience background” part…

Al: Well he has a a brain, so he know’s something about neurology.

Steve: I don’t think that’s how that works…

Al: And Gretchen Wiener’s dad called him “The Globe’s Brain Surgeon.”

Steve: Who’s that?

Al: Gretchen Weiner’s dad?

Steve: Yeah – he’s like a neurosurgeon or something?

Al: No, he’s the inventor of toaster strudel.

Steve: [pause]

Al: ¬†But he’s really rich, and he donates money to charity so he knows what he’s talking about.

Steve: Ugh, whatever.  So is this robot brain surgery effective?

Al:  Yeah people love it for all the perfectly valid reasons I previously stated.

Steve: That’s really not what I asked. ¬†How does it work?

Al: Well, the robot takes this long thing metal cylinder.

Steve: Ok.

Al: And it lines it up with the patients nose.

Steve:¬†I don’t like where this is going, but continue.

Al: And then it inserts the rod through the nose and up into the brain, and just kind of, you know, swishes it around.

Steve:¬†¬†Damn! So it’s a lobotomy machine?

Al: Oh God no.  This is a brain surgery robot.

Steve: But it’s a robot that performs a lobotomy. ¬†It offers a service that we no longer do because of the harmful effects, and we have learned better means to help people with serious neurological or psychiatric conditions…

Al: But..

Steve:¬†It takes us back decades in what we know to be proven and sound practices. ¬†I mean if we look around the world, hell, in our own backyard, we know there are better ways to accomplish our goals…


Steve: But what?

Al: Did I mention the Gretchen Wiener’s thing?

End Scene

I think that Dr. Ian Malcom said it best: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they¬†should.” ¬†Thanks Doc; rest in peace.

Teacher Tools, So What?

Posted: November 14, 2008 in Uncategorized
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I will later be posting a slightly edited version of a presentation I gave at the 2008 ECOO conference.¬† The topic was on Journalism and New Media for students.¬† Throughout I referred to podcasts, blogs, wikis, etc.¬† And while these tools can be great, we must remember one of the newer catch phrases uttered in the halls of workshops, conferences, and professional development sessions – “They are only tools.”

I do not think that adequately captures my sentiments about these technologies in the hands of eager teachers; born into the the world of web 2.0 and like the foal, struggles to walk too quickly.¬† I get excited speaking to teachers that are learning about ways they can improve their practice and getting excited about it.¬† There are too many teachers (isn’t one too many) rigid in their practice, unwilling to change or grow.¬† But what I like to tell them is that yes technology is a tool.¬† But the dilemma is, what should you be asking yourself, “What a great tool!¬† Now I have to figure out how to build something.¬† But what to build?”

I visualize someone waking up in the 18th century divinely inspired, and creates a toaster.¬† Radiant in its stainless steel glory, its shine only dulled by the radiance of his beaming smile, he shows his friend.¬† They are equally amazed, after all it is new and has that cosmopolitan name “toaster.”¬† Of course, no one knows what to do with it.¬† Perhaps we should be asking “What do I want to build?”¬† Let’s ask this question before we go rooting through the toolbox looking for a new gadget.

I am not saying not to stock up on tools.¬† By all means.¬† Save links people send you, keep informed about new technologies, listen to colleagues.¬† But then think about current problems you have, and then look at the tools at your disposal.¬† Or let the knowledge of the tools you have percolate in your brain for just a little bit.¬† If you first don’t ask yourself “What do I want to build today?” you are walking around the house with a new hammer – looking for something to fix.¬† And while you may indeed fix something broken, you may end up with a house full of holes in the walls.

Be problem centered.¬† This means looking at¬†a pathway of¬†Problem -> Tool -> Implementation -> Solution.¬† Do you think your students need to learn how to collaborate?¬† Or you know students may have a hard time physically getting together to work on a group project?¬†Then consider introducing them to a wiki.¬† This, after all is what we often try and teach our students: How to look at a problem and then find a solution.¬† Because if you develop a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist – is it still a solution?

Today I was off to Appleby College in Oakville.  Appleby was hosting the 2008 Our School Yard Summer (OSY) Institute organized by the Association for Canadian Educational Resources (ACER.)  I had read about the ACER OSY program earlier in the year and really had only a basic knowledge of the event.  All the same, I was very excited to find out that I was able to attend this years program.


For those interested in monitoring trees on their own land or schoolyard of any size or shape, ACER offers a program that enables students, clubs, groups, or individuals to accurately collect data to monitor tree growth.

For teachers, this is a cross curriculum, multi-grade method where students can combat climate change hands-on. We teach you how to roll this program out at your own school, and support you on the way.

That’s the basics and I will try and fill in some more pieces as I continue through the three day course. ¬†I am going to focus mainly on the day to day events of the course. ¬†If you would like to read about ACER’s great work in the domestic and international communities, please visit the ACER homepage.

Day 1 Begins

I should start by saying that I had to miss part of the afternoon session. ¬†I only found out I could attend the OSY seminar after I had an appointment that I couldn’t change. I found out later that day three would allow me some time to go back over what I would miss.

The day began (like any good workshop for teachers) with coffee and muffins.  These were given by Appleby College in addition to them hosting the event free of charge.  We then were greeted by some of the ACER team and introduced more thoroughly to what we would be doing over the next few days.  Much of what we would be doing this first day is learning what duties we as teachers would have our students perform.  The buzz of eco-excitement was in the air as we sent outside for our first session.

Activity 1: Sketch Mapping

Our first task was for our group to sketch the courtyard outside Appleby’s Dining Hall. ¬†Students normally would be sketching whatever area on school grounds being monitored. ¬†This was done mainly with long flexible measuring tapes. ¬†We began with sketching the perimeter and adding in notable structures. ¬†We also placed courtyard trees on our map being sure to measure their distances to their surroundings. ¬†The actual sketching was done by myself (I will add a copy here when I can.) ¬†Our leader Doug lead us through the exercise and provided it us with some information on compass use, and bearing. ¬†After all – every map needs¬†a compass rose.

Activity 2: Tree Measurement

The protocol used by ACER states that we are going to record trees that have a diameter of greater than 4cm at 1.3m up the tree. ¬†That obviously eliminates young trees – we are recording “mature” trees. ¬†This involved using a clinometer and tan tables to determine tree height, a diameter tape or graduated calipers to measure diameter, as well as a regular tape measure for crown width. ¬†It was pretty interesting and with all the hands on work I’m sure students would enjoy the activity. ¬†Our leader Alice also showed us how to look at tree health as well as a brief introduction to tree identification (something we will be doing later on.)

Activity 3: GPS Plotting

Using GPS units we went out to mark the locations of our trees.  This was pretty simple as GPS units have some sort of marl waypoint feature.  We marked our trees as waypoints and renamed them in the GPS so we would be able to identify the plots later.  These plots recorded as x,y coordinates will be entered into GIS software to create a map and a digital representation of our courtyard.

Actvity 4: QGIS

Ok, so this is where I unfortunately had to leave.  But I was able to later read the walkthrough in the resources binder we were given.  I feel pretty comfortable that I would be able to muddle through creating a map and importing the tree waypoints thanks to this guide.  Again, I will be able to go over this again on day three and will fill in this gap.

The day offered a great deal of information to absorb. ¬†It is shaping up to be a great experience and something I will definitely try and share with my students. ¬†I don’t teach Science or Geography so this may be something that gets done by our schools’ environmental club. ¬†I may also try and work with a Geography teacher to incorporate some/all of the activities into their coursework.