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The effect of communication tools on education

It should be clear to anyone reading this that the type of tools we have for communication strongly affect how education occurs. If we examine communication tools over time, we can see two trends in our communication tools.

History of communication tools

The first is that our communication tools have evolved from more personal and intimate, to greater mass distribution of information and less personal engagement. When we communicate via body language only, you have to be fairly close to the person, and you need some understanding of who they are for the communication to be successful. At the other end of the extreme, the Internet requires almost no intimacy, no personal connection, and only a modicum of cultural understanding.

Evolution of communication tools

(Graph not to scale)

The purpose of the graph above is to illustrate that the communication tools we have invented tend to allow for both a greater communication speed, and for a greater reach. I can  talk to a few hundred people from on a top of a hill, but I can potentially reach millions of people through a single tweet. The effect of this trend on education is that the flow of information, once painfully slow, is now more like a fire hydrant.

Another interesting trend is the evolution of communication tools in such a way as to promote the more personal, more intimate communication but at a greater distance. For example, tools like Skype allow for a greater degree of interpersonal communication than is possible through sending text messages back and forth. If this trend continues, we will soon be able to communicate in 3d holographic projection to people across the planet, allowing for the subtlety of body language to be included as part of our communication. We will be able to have truly intimate and personal conversations with people who we have never met in person.

Noise

A flaw with the current system of mass communication is that most of the "communication" that is occurring is just noise. There is vastly more information than one can ever possibly digest available through the web, and a huge amount of that information is just garbage. There may be 35 hours of video footage uploaded to Youtube every minute, but how much of it is worth watching? How much of it is family vacation videos?

If the flow of information through the interactive web is like a fire hydrant, then it should be the role of schools to help our students develop tools for filtering that flow.

We must also recognize that if the intimacy of the classroom can be replicated through the Web, that it will be, and that educators will need to adapt to this change. Already schools have seen their traditional classroom students start the migration toward online learning. While I still think that services like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware are poor substitutes for the intimate classroom experience, I do not think we are far away from the kind of technological changes which will place a huge strain on the typical didactic classroom model.

I think we need to ensure that the importance of personal and intimate communication, which has always been important to us as a species, is not lost during this transition. While our communication tools may change how and where we connect with our students, we must remember that our value as educators lies not in what we know, but in the relationships we form with our students.

Here is my presentation from the Digital Learning conference in April.

Moderating external projects

For the past three years, I’ve been an official IB Assistant Examiner.  This means that each May (or November, but I usually don’t sign up for the November sessions, too busy), I get sent a whole bunch of external exams or projects, and I have to grade the assignments.  The money isn’t great, it’s a huge amount of work, but I see it as really valuable.

I had just received yet another package this morning, which one of the administrative staff gave to me, so I felt obligated to explain to her about my role as an assistant examiner for the IB.  Her response was "Wow, that’s cool, it must really give you some perspective into your own students’ work."  

This really is true, I love being able to see what other schools do.  I can’t share it directly with my peers for confidentiality reasons, but certainly I share the principles behind how student work is arranged, and what the expectations are around the world.  I’ve now observed a few dozen different school’s work, which means that I have a few dozen perspectives on what it means to produce a student project.  The best part is, almost all of these projects are based on the same small set of projects, so I can actually control for type of project.

I highly recommend moderating other school’s work, the perspective you gain is totally worth it, even if the money is not.

Miscommunication through minutes

So had a minor incident happen today. I was taking minutes for our weekly meeting, trying desperately to keep up and summarizing as I went. One of the things I wrote was apparently too much of a summary, and missed the gist of what was trying to be said.  As a result, someone else got into trouble for something that they probably would not have, had they been able to keep track of what was said.  This happens as a result of the failure of the written word, especially the poorly written and quickly done written word, to actually capture what everyone means.  It also happens because as human beings we often mean to say something, or phrase something in a certain way, and oops, out comes something else.

Anyway, a solution we are going to try is to make the process of creating the minutes more open.  I’ll post a Google doc (that everyone can edit) and people can add their agenda items to the Google doc as the week progresses.  This way, we will all have control over what is published about our meeting, and as the week unfolds, people get updates and information on an ongoing basis, rather than in a short 20 minute meeting before a busy school day.  At the meeting itself, we may find that we are discussing issues more rather than giving brief summaries of things going on and trying to jam them into 30 second blurbs.

This process won’t replace the meetings we have, which I think are a great way to connect during the week, and reduce some of the teacher isolation that normally occurs.  I’m just hopeful it will help clear up misunderstandings, and oversimplification of complicated ideas that are conveyed in these meetings.

Creating a WiiMote interactive white board at my school for under $50.

So someone sent me a link to the video below and I decided to act upon it.  I thought I would link my resources I find for this project here, and keep you all up to date on how it is working.

The immediate attraction for this project was the idea of being able to create an interactive white board for what looks like close to $50.  Our school currently has three Smartboards at the Upper school and three Smartboards at the lower school and three times that many classrooms at each building.  This means that only 1 out 3 lessons is taught using a Smartboard at best, and teachers tend not to use the Smartboards.  Part of the problem here is the Smartboard technology is not immediately obvious how to use, and part of it is because of training, but access to a Smartboard is a big problem for most teachers.

First I had to do some research into the controllers themselves which are necessary, which are basically a Nintendo WiiMote and a Bluetooth receiver on your laptop.  According to Amazon the WiiMote costs about $35 and the Bluetooth receiver costs about $4.   You might also want a cheap tripod to mount the Wiimote onto, that should cost another $15 or so and is useful but optional (my tripod cost me 9 dollars) since in the video below you can see Johnny mounts the Wiimote directly on top of the LCD projector.  You also need an LED pen, which you can apparently build for about 5 dollars or purchase online.  Total cost so far is 44 dollars or if you are lucky and find a cheap tripod (like I did), 53 dollars.

As for turning the Wiimote into an interactive white board, Johnny Lee (the inventor of this process) has instructions up on his website.  He has also created a community forum where you can post questions, and if it is like most online communities I know, get answers to your questions.

Johnny Lee has also presented at TED, so you know there are some very smart people who love (and have tested) his idea.  What I really love is the demonstration of the VR system he has designed using pretty much the same hardware with some different software.

Here’s a good video showing a pressure sensitive pen, which will make writing much easier.  The brand name of the pen casing is called Tide-to-go pressure tip pen.  Yes, as in Tide the laundry detergent company.

Communication tools

Our assignment this week was to choose two communication tools, either synchronous or asynchronous in nature, and use them with our LMS. The tools we choose can either be an internal part of whichever LMS framework we have chosen, or some external tool.

My online course within Moodle is intended to support a face to face course called IB Mathematical Studies I will be running next year at my new school. This course is supported by an external curriculum and a standard final exam worth 80% of the final grade of the students. Students will responsible for learning the same material as other students from all over the world and so internal accountability will be very important.

The first tool I chose is an ongoing discussion forum within the LMS. I will likely end up teaching a split class, where some students are taking IB Mathematical Studies, and other students are taking IB Mathematics SL. Unfortunately these two courses are very different and so often some students will be working on an assignment while I am teaching a lesson to another group of students. In order to provide both groups of students with ample time to ask questions, my thought is that I should provide an ongoing place for the students to bring up their questions, which either they can answer for each other, or that I can answer.

The organization of the forums is by topic. According to Anderson (2008), “[t]he first task for the e-learning teacher is to develop a sense of trust and safety within the electronic community.” For this reason I have started the course with an icebreaker week in the forum discussions. This allows students to iron out any difficulties logging into the forum and learning how to post to the forum discussions. It also provides an opportunity for all students to complete an activity with which they will be successful.

This tool will allow students both the opportunity to ask questions they might not have time to ask during class, and the chance to review the answers to these questions at their own pace. As we have organized the forum discussions by topic, it will also provide a way for students to keep track of the material we have covered in the course for any review before in-class exams. These benefits are not something many IB Mathematical Students experience, given they are often the weaker students in the school. Many of them lack the organizational skills to keep a notebook in an organized enough fashion to be useful for review.

I’ve tested the forum feature and it seems to work as advertised. It allows for discussions to be threaded, which makes it much easier to keep track of what has been discussed, and what order participants have responded to questions. The formatting of the responses is done using the FCKEditor JavaScript “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) editor. In my experience as a web developer, this particular WYSIWYG has excellent cross browser and operating system support, being one of the few WYSIWYG editors which support Safari.

One major limitation with the forums is the difficulty students will experience posting mathematical equations and symbols online. Although there are plugins for Moodle which allow mathematical equations to be added to the pages (I’ve written one of these myself), they are all fairly difficult to use for the end user, usually requiring an arcane formatting language called Tex to be learned by the students. I have had success teaching a limited subset of Tex to high school students, but it can be difficult for many of the students, especially the weaker students.

I have learned a variety of techniques for creating online equations, but have noted that the difficulty of adding the questions is inversely proportional to the number of steps required to add the equations into the forum discussions. The easiest way for students to add equations is to use Microsoft Equation editor, something most students learn quickly, and then convert each equation to an image (usually by taking a screen shot, cropping it in an image editor, saving the file) and then uploading it and inserting it in the correct location to their post. The most difficult method is for the students to learn Tex and type their equations directly into the WYSIWYG editor but this is a single step process.

There are a couple of problems with this forum system. One is that it is very teacher directed, in the sense the format and content of the forums is decided by me. Although students are free to post any questions they want, they must post topic specific questions in an appropriate location. This limits their freedom and hence their motivation to use the forums.

Another method of communication I will continue to use with my course is an associated class blog. I have actually used this with my teaching for 4 years now with my classes, and have found it to be very successful. I have not yet set up a blog for my new school, but my old classroom blogs, using the Movable Type and WordPress platforms respectively, are located at http://www.southbank.net/blogs/staff/davidw/ and https://davidwees.com/davidw.

Given my experience with using a blog with my students, I have found it to be an effective form of communication, both for broadcasting information to my students, and for providing a place for students to communicate with each other, and with me online. Over the years I have been refining the use of a blog with my class and can see some more improvements for the future.

First, each student has an account on the blog, and the ability to post new blog entries, comments, and create tags for their entries freely. This allows students to post about anything they want, with the proviso that it must have something to do with our course. How I have been providing some structure for the blog is by having students post daily summaries of the lessons from class, and requiring students to read each others’ summaries using a relevant comment to prove the reading of the summary.

This has been included in the participation grade of each student in the class, which I have found an effective way to motivate even the weaker students to participate in the blog. Students are graded using a rubric, which rewards both the completion of an entry and the quality of the posts, hence students feel both rewarded just for doing an entry, and for putting their best effort into the entry.

The purpose of the blog has been to provide a way to make announcements to students, upload resources for them to download, and allow for communication between students. The summaries that have been posted have been very useful for students during review, as is evident by both my course evaluation forms, and the online web statistics provided by the blog.

There are a couple of limitations of the blog. The first is that again, just like the forums for Moodle, students will have difficulty posting mathematical equations. The solutions I have used to make this possible are the same as what works for the Moodle forums.

The second limitation is that the blog does not allow for students to group entries together in their own categorization system. I am building an improvement over the WordPress CMS in the Drupal CMS, where students will be able to bookmark useful entries for later, build an online portfolio of their best work, make some of their work private, and categorize content anyway they want. All of the other features of the WordPress blog would continue to be available, but this should allow students to have their freedom to construct their own online learning space.

Both of these systems are asynchronous, but in the world of high school education, this is probably a good thing for more than one reason. First, high school students are busy, typically being involved in many different activities so finding a time for synchronous communication with all students would be too difficult. Second, the asynchronous nature of this communication means students have time to think about and format their questions and responses since mathematics is such a difficult subject matter to format for the web.

References:

Anderson, T. (2008). Teaching in an Online Learning Context. In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University. Accessed online 14 June 2009 http://www.aupress.ca/books/120146/ebook/14_Anderson_2008_Anderson-DeliveryQualitySupport.pdf

Geogebra Open Presentation writing

Google Docs has a really cool feature I’d like to try out.  The idea is that I have a presentation on Geogebra that I would like to host.  There was a lot of interest before, and unfortunately I had to cancel, but I’d like to try again.  I’m not a Geogebra expert however, just an enthusiastic intermediate level user.  I’d like to create a presentation for beginners to use, but don’t want to miss anything important.

That’s where you come in, if you are interested.  The idea is, I’ve created a presentation, which you can access at:

http://docs.google.com/Presentation?id=dhkzc87c_7g8r8cz83

You can contact me through an online form at https://davidwees.com/contact and ask for permission to edit the presentation, and I’ll send you an invitation.  You’ll have to start by creating an account at http://docs.google.com, but that’s pretty easy to do.  Once you have the invitation, you can edit/add to/delete from the presentation.  I’ve started with a basic structure, but there’s obviously lots of room for improvement.

Here is what we have so far:

Communication Online with Students Outside of Class

Once you’ve started working with creating and managing online resources for your students, it becomes natural that the ways the students communicate with you is going to change a little bit.  Here are some guidelines for ways you can communicate with your students, and some ways to protect yourself while doing so.

Last night a student of mine asked me a question while I was online through Google chat.  I didn’t mind answering it, and so we had a quick 5 minute discussion about her project.  This saved me a bunch of time the following day, because I didn’t need to repeat the same conversation with everyone else, I just posted the relevant information to my classroom Math blog and then all of the students had access to it.

Google chat has a very handy safety feature for teachers, it automatically records your chat history, which you have access from your Google mail account.  This means that you can easily protect yourself from any accusations of misconduct which might occur.  This process is very similar to a student calling you on your phone and so the same principles apply.  If you don’t want a student trying to contact you via Google chat, don’t give out your gmail address.

You can also communicate quite effectively with students via email.  This has the advantage of allowing multiple students to receive responses, being able to record your conversations for later, and finally being able to send responses when it is convenient for you.  I hate it when students come up to me immediately after a class and ask a bunch of detailed questions because I almost always need to go to the bathroom, or prepare for another course, or get a snack.  These are the times when being able to send an email later is very handy.

Google mail has two neat features that make email with students a bit easier to manage.  The first is that you can apply a label to any email message sent or received between you and a student, which is a handy way of finding messages from students in specific classes.  The other feature I like is called filtering, which can allow you to perform automatic actions on emails that you receive depending on the sender, the contents of the email, etc…  One of the things I like to do is automatically label student emails by class when I receive them.

Finally, never delete emails between you and a student.  They are proof that you have been trying to help the student, which can be useful for administrative reasons I won’t go into here.  You can keep them to help yourself remember what types of questions ask about particular topics.  Finally your record helps protect you from potential problems later.

An interesting and relatively new way to communicate with students is through a website called Twitter.com.  This website basically acts as a place where you can post a quick (140 characters maximum) message to the world, and anyone who is "following" you gets a copy of the message.  Since you can forward messages sent to you to your cell phone, it allows you to receive messages from an online source quickly and easily to your mobile phone.  This can be an easy way to set up a one-way broadcast system between you and each of your students in a particular class.  As long as you don’t "follow" your students’ messages, you won’t get any messages from your students that you don’t want.

Emails and chats are good for 1 on 1 or 1 on a few types of communications, but by far the best tool I have used for communication with my students is my classroom blog, described in another post.  Basically, I post information, worksheets, assignments to my mathematics blog, and students can all come read it on their own time.  The information is totally public and always available to look at later.  I also have students do daily summaries of what happened in class, which means I have a record of all of my lessons.  Students are free to post comments, which gives me some idea of what the class understood, and what they had difficulty.  For some reason I find my students are a bit more honest when responding on the blog, or rather less likely to remain silent about difficulties.  In fact, I’ve enacted policy changes because of legitimate complaints students have brought up through the blog, so it has acted as a tool to empower students as well.

These are 4 ways you can communicate online with your face to face students on a day to day basis.  Although we all don’t want our professional life to creep into our personal life too much, we also want to make sure that we help our students learn effective modes of communication, and that they have the help they need to handle those difficult projects we seem to be throwing at them endlessly these days.  Stay tuned for a future article about how to use Dimdim.com for communicating with up to 20 students simultaneously for free.