Distracted by Smart Phones and Schools Without Windows

Fewer schools are banning cell phones in classrooms. As smart phones become smarter and schools begin adopting BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), teachers are more open to tapping into these powerful learning tools. Yet for all the great opportunities they present, we still hear a call to ban them or find that teachers are fighting against them for the attention of the students. Recently, social media and digital guru Clay Shirky, posted about why he is asking students to put their laptops away. He talks about the cognitive pull these devices have on our attention and concludes his post with these words of wisdom:

This is, for me, the biggest change — not a switch in rules, but a switch in how I see my role. Professors are at least as bad at estimating how interesting we are as the students are at estimating their ability to focus. Against oppositional models of teaching and learning, both negative—Concentrate, or lose out!—and positive—Let me attract your attention!—I’m coming to see student focus as a collaborative process. It’s me and them working to create a classroom where the students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.

Student focus is a collaborative process. The cards are stacked against us in the classroom: the Carnegie Unit (or student hour), a curriculum that believes every child wants to learn about Tunisia in grade three, standardized everything. However, that doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel as Shirky suggests in his article. We need to work with students to show them how they can manage the digital tools they have in their pockets and harness their power for learning. A few simple steps could be:

  • Show students how to set turn off notifications and set their notification blocker (iOS, Android)
  • Increase rigor –  Have a variety of things to do during a lesson to keep the students attention. The attention span of children is one minute per year to a max of twenty minutes.
  • Use phrases that let students know when you absolutely need their attention and when they can be on their phones (eg. “Screens down” or “10 minutes of focus”). Help them control their Reticular Activation System in their brains.
  • Provide choice in assignments that allow them to use their phones. There are lots of ways to incorporate phones into lessons now: Video, audio, pictures, Google Drive (Docs, Slides, Sheets). Limiting tech to note-taking devices is a missed opportunity.

This list is not definitive, nor is the argument meant to be taken to the extreme. Yes, there are times when smartphones are not appropriate. Yes, some students have a harder time managing their attention than other students. Yes, the primary job of the teacher is to teach the curriculum and the curriculum (as well as the accompanying standardized exam) lends itself to particular teaching methods. That’s OK. Not everybody is ready for the change in teaching style and pedagogical philosophy that accompanies the inclusion of these tools. Rather than avoid these new learning tools because they require us to make a shift in how we teach, lets look at what we need to do to make the most of them.

It may be an urban myth, but the laughable prevailing understanding of why schools that were built in the 1960’s didn’t have windows was because they were too distracting to students. Will we ever look back and feel the same about personal devices?

Google Classroom Makes a Debut


I had my first real chance to play with Google Classroom and my first impressions have been very positive. It is a very simple interface and it will ease document management for both teachers and students.

What I like about Google Classroom:

  • Automatically makes a classroom folder in my Drive that contains a folder for each course. Inside each course folder, I can create assignments and store docs that I will be able to use year after year.
  • Automatically creates a folder to store a class assignment. Each new assignment gets a new folder within the class folder. When students make a copy of the doc for their work, it adds it in my assignment folder and automatically puts their name after the title.
  • The conversation stream for the whole class and on individual assignments is a great way to stay connected with students. It is a simple, yet effective, social media element.
  • In the Student view, you can see all your upcoming and overdue assignments on one page (might cause anxiety issues for some students).
  • Exporting assignment marks as CSV files could make for easy input in to student information systems.
  • The classroom code that students can use to enter themselves into a classroom is very slick. This code can be changed so that you can lock it down after the class has started if you don’t want people from outside the class getting in.
  • Tracks who has (and has not) turned in an assignment. It is also easy to send an email reminder to students.

Initial Thoughts

I also have a few things I would like to see changed, but as this is the early stages of Google Classroom, I am sure there will be lots of updates over the next few months and years. One such issue is the “turn in” button. In its current form, students are unable to edit something after they click the “turn it” in button, and the teacher has suggestions/commenting rights. It would be great to be able to toggle that on and off. If I could control the “editability” of the assignment,  I could turn on the “no more editing” feature if it was a summative assessment, or turn it off if I have a formative assessment and would like to provide feedback while they work.

One suggestion I would like to try is integrating an ePortfolio into the file structure Google Classroom automatically creates for the students. In their Classroom folder, students could make an ePortfolio folder that is shared with their parents/guardians and anyone else they choose. Students can move completed assignments to this folder and organize it in such a way that it becomes the archive of their best work over their school career.


I am not an assessment guru, but any suggestions on how to make this an authentic ePortfolio would be appreciated.

A “classroom” doesn’t necessarily need to be for one course. It could be used for differentiation within a class (groups of students each assigned to a “classroom”). It could also be used for professional learning groups. And with a little more thought, I am sure I could come up with a way to use it as a project management tool for project-based learning and District level administrative projects. Lots of possibility here.

For more info, check out the following links:

SMART Tables as an iPad Center in K-3

More and more we are seeing iPads being used as a learning center in K-3 classes. Typically, a teacher will have four or five iPads all linked to one iTunes account. Apps can then be bought and shared between the iPads and organized into thematic folders. (It is important to note here that unless the teacher is using Configurator, this practice violates the iTunes Store Terms and Conditions – section MAC APP STORE PRODUCT USAGE RULES). As these iPads are not set up for individual students, most of the educational apps used do not collect learning data and tend not to be collaborative.

One solution that has promise is the SMART Table, where students can use it as a center to collaboratively solve problems and learn through playing. The idea of immediate feedback and the potential for the collection of learning data is excellent.

However, before we get too excited, there are some fundamental problems with the table. The first is cost. They run between $7000-$8000 CND, which might be worth while if the table managed learning analytics, but it doesn’t – at least not yet. Also, in order to set up the table for students to use, the teacher needs to insert a USB key. It makes sense to have a lock on the teacher screen, but a USB key seems a bit 2003. The resolution is good, but the screen would occasionally disappear for a second or two.

Finally, and most importantly, it is difficult to see how the learning is improved through the use of the table. If the goal is to improve collaboration, the table is an expensive alternative to manipulative and games already in the classroom. As well, some of the learning activities immediate feedback told students they got the answer right, even though they selected the wrong answer.

There remains a lot of potential in a SMART table in the K-3 classroom. Unfortunately, the price point and the lack of an improvement in learning puts this device in the “Maybe in the Future” category.

You Too Can Use YouTube

Remember when we used to block YouTube because we did not see the educational value of it? YouTube, and our understanding of it, have changed significantly in the last few years. There is a lot of educational power in creating and sharing playlist, uploading and editing in YouTube, and managing a channel, as well as utilizing the YouTube Options extension in Chrome. Tap into YouTube to create multiple means of engagement, expression, and representation for your students.

A great way to add another means of representation for your students is to create a playlist. You can organize your playlist by concept or subject and link or embed the playlists on whatever web properties you teach with. It is a good way to provide another voice or another way of explaining a concept. It can also be accessed by students for review or extending their knowledge. There are quite a few documentaries have been legally put on Youtbe. I have created a play list of The Corperation for my Social 30-1 class and put a link to it on the class website. I was then able to show only the sections I wanted to focus on in class. If students were interested, they could watch the whole film at home from my playlist. However, sometimes you can find whole movies on Youtube that you think are being hosted legally, only to find that they dissappear. Be sure to check and update your playlists every now and then.

A feature I found very slick was the ability to upload to YouTube directly from a webcam. This makes it really easy for students to upload interviews, self-reflections, oral stories, etc. as an alternate means of expression. The editor is quite basic, but WeVideo is a Chrome App that will work within the YouTube editor and add some cool editing tools. The nice part is that no software is required and you can shoot, edit and share a video all from a Chromebook. The caution here is that parents should know that you are using YouTube in your class as a way to acheive multiple means of expression and students should be gettign used to changing their privacy settings to “unlisted.”

There are some very well done educational videos, such as those made by Crash Course, that students find very engaging. And YouTube is full of great, short clips that can prompt a conversation or activate prior knowlegde and provide another means to engage your students. it is also great to have students tell their story on video before they write it as another way to engage them in the writing process.

The statics about YouTube are stagering. YoutTube recieves four billion view each day and is the 3rd largest website on the internet. We should be using YouTube not just because it gives us more pedogoical options, but because it is important for us to help our students understand and harness its power.

Edit: To really understand the scope of Youtube, check out Mashable’s article on “Gangnam Style.”

Video Games in Education and UDL

Last week I was lucky enough to attend and present at the Educational Technology Council of the Alberta Teachers Association’s annual conference. One of the sessions I attended was about creating games in the classroom, lead by Kandise Salerno and Susana Gerndt from Sister Annata Brockman Elementary/Junior High School. I really liked their innovative approach by getting students to create a video game in class. One question that was asked at the end of the session was about how (or if) students were learning content through this process. This got me thinking about the purpose of gaming in the classroom and the impact it can have on different elements of teaching. There are different ways to apply gaming theory and practice to the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Means of Representation

This is what the questioner was trying to get at in the ETCATA session. Is it possible to use a video game to teach a concept? I first stumbled on the idea that content could be delivered through a video game in the 90’s when I started noticing Grade 8 students who had a pretty substantial knowledge of WWII because they had been playing Call of Duty (PC version, not console). I have since heard a few examples of content being taught with Civilization (Ancient Rome with Civ IV) and World of War Craft (Professors hold Class in WOW). Not all trials were successful, and the ones that I heard about that I thought were effective were post-secondary classes. I have always wanted to put a Social 10 course about Globalization based on Civ IV (now Civ V), but was too afraid of the costs, risks and time commitment. However, I do believe that there is educational value in video games as a means of representation and, if it is implemented thoughtfully, would appeal to many students.

Means of Expression

This is the principle reflected in the way Gerndt and Annada used gaming. After students had learned about a historical time period, they had to add an element, or level, to the game that showed they had learned and understood the material (Granatstein would have been impressed). Through the creation of the game, students were learning valuable skills for the modern world, such as collaboration, critical thinking, and digital fluency, to name a few, all while expressing their new knowledge to the topic. In UDL terms, there are students that may find it easier to show what they know through creating a game that explains a concept rather than write an essay about it.

Means of Engagement

Gaming and game theory can also be used to engage students, sustain interest and self-regulate. Paul Anderson delivers an interesting TED Talk in which he completely redesigns his class around some of the principles of gaming. His thoughtful and innovative approach is definitely worth considering. I don’t know if it would work for all grade levels, and I also wonder if it would be as effective if every class operated on the same premise. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about how video games motivate people that have classroom applications.

Three approaches to the ways video games can influence the classroom through the principles of UDL. These are not perfect fits, and there are many roadblocks and hurtles that make it difficult for us to use games in the classroom. Hats off to those committed teachers, like Gerndt and Annada at Sister Annata Brockman, who are bravely pioneering this innovative and exciting approach to teaching.

Coding and Project Based Learning

A few months ago I got this email from my brother who was attending a web developers conference:

I am sitting at this conference …and there are people from all over the world who ALL are complaining about the shortage of good software developers. I’m wondering what programs there are at Edmonton public that are directing kids toward careers in software. Is there anything?

The short answer to that question is “No.” We have some Career and Technology Studies courses that could teach kids how to code. We also have a smattering teachers who have their students build apps. I would say that the biggest course in the district that teaches kids how to code is Robotics. However, software development (or coding) is no where in our curriculum and there is very little likelihood that it will be in the future.

However, I would like to propose that even a rudimentary understanding of coding is important as a 21st Century Literacy skill. With the ubiquitousness of the internet and the internet of things, he amount of data being generated is exponential as the future unfolds. In order for us to capitalize on that data stream, we will rely on programs to aggregate and process the information for us. In an ideal world, people will have the skills required to write code that will pull the data they need in order to make wise decisions. For more about this concept, see Rushkoff’s “Program or be Programmed“.

So were does software development fit in our schools? I think project based learning is a good place to start. By giving students a problem that can be solved with software or an app is a great way introduce students to coding, particularly if that app provides a solution to a real world problem. If you have ever written any code, no matter how big or small, you can attest the amount of critical thinking is required in order for your code to work. Also, there is a lot of reflection and revision that goes into coding, and students receive immediate feedback on whether or not their code works. These projects could be cross-curricular or a unit in a subject area.

I would love to hear from anyone who is allowing students the option to develop apps and software as a major class project. It would be interesting to hear how you assessed students and how they responded to your project.

Cell Phones like Guns?

When the Toronto District School Board lifted their ban on cell phones, I found the following comment on the GlobalTV Facebook discussion criticizing the decision:

Likewise, kids bring guns to schools. No, the rationale should be different. Kids must learn a basic premise in tool handling: no tool is appropriate to all occasion. Just as guns shoud only be applied to their intended purposes (to kill) so mobile devices should be put aside while other type of activities take place, unless they’re regulated by the school as teaching/learning devices, which is not the case in real life.

The last sentence is a good qualifier to the arguement, and I need to acknowledge that I will now be misusing the logic presented in the comment. But this got me thinking about the argument that a cell phone is inappropriate in the same way that a gun is inappropriate and I came up with a different approach using a similar logic:

Just as the “pen is mightier than the sword,’ the cell phone is mightier than the gun (ie, the Revolutions in the Middle East). We teach kids to use a pen in class, ergo we should be teaching kids how to use a cell phone in class.

Alright, this is an obvious stretch. Cell phones were not the driving force at the core of the revolutions in the Middle East, but were a complimentary communication tool of pre-existing ideas. Nevertheless, one needs to remember that the cell phones of today are not like the cell phones from the end of the last century. The capabilities of a cell phone are astonishing and have a significant cultural and personal implications. If we are not teaching students how to use them properly, responsibly and effectively, who is?


Teachers on Facebook

Facebook is a great way to connect with students. Facebook is a liability waiting to happen. Facebook is a way to extend learning outside the classroom. Facebook is a violation of our privacy. All of the above?

We really need to keep the conversation about the role of Facebook and Social Media in the classroom going. If you have been reading my blog, it is obvious that I am an advocate for Social Media. I believe that relationships are at the core of teaching, and as new media involves a whole new level of social interaction. We need to be mindful of both the pitfalls and opportunities that present themselves online.

I am doing a session tomorrow called “Should Teachers be Friends with Students on Facebook?” The goal of this session is to get teachers talking and thinking about the ways to use Facebook and other forms of Social Media. If you would like to join in on the conversation, check out the links below and leave a comment.

I Can Teach Without a Computer

For those that have heard me speak this may be hard to believe, but one of the foundations of my beliefs is that if you can do something better without technology, don’t use technology. However, this assumption is predicated on the premis that one can effectively use technology. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier/better. Its misuse tends to drain our energy, increase our stress levels and make us work more, not less.

Look at the teaching technologies from the end of the last century – the overhead projector and the VCR. Would anyone argue that those devices were a drain on our time and energy? Sure the VCR didn’t work all the time and the bulb blew on the overhead, but those teaching tools were so integrated into daily practice that they became seamless. Could teachers have taught without them? Absolutely. But why would they? The VCR added visual learning and story telling in a much more effective, engaging and convient way than its predecessors. The overhead ment you could face the class when you taught, and save your notes for the next lesson. I have taught for quite a few years, but I have never seen a Level One overhead projector course.

When we talk about the role of technology for the 21st Century teacher, I think we often frame our questions wrong. Until technologies like interactive white boards, cloud computing, mobile devices, and social media become as seamless in the class as the overhead projector, we will continue to miss the point about teaching 21st century skills. It’s not about the technology – it’s about teaching communication, social responsibility, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration in a way that its relevant for the world of our students. And how can those skills and attitudes be relevant for them if they aren’t using the tools that are shaping their world?

Perhaps the argument shouldn’t be “if you can do something better with out technology, don’t use technology.” Instead we should probably ask ourselves “Which Century’s tools should we use?”

Will iPads Revolutionize Education?

Camps are forming as we draw closer to the release of Apple’s new iPad. Some think it is the worst idea Apple has had this century, and others believe it will revolutionize how we use computers. I have had a number of conversations this week with teachers, principals and consultants about the impact this new device will have on education.

Anti-iPad: “Who wants to carry around a big phone?” “It will not run multiple programs simultaneously” “The keyboard sucks.” I reply to these statements by saying that the iPad is not a productivity tool. I think Steven Jobs gives a great, two minute description of the iPad’s function during his 2010 Keynote address (watch from 6:34 – 8:49) . If you equate learning with productivity, then you would not see any benefit to having iPads or next-gen tablet PCs in school. I have also heard that iPad will not run Flash, but  according to Adobe’s Flash Platform blog “It is [their] intent to make it possible for Flash developers to build applications that can take advantage of the increased screen size and resolution of the iPad.”

Pro-iPad: “Students won’t need to carry around armfuls of textbooks” “eTextbooks can be constantly and easily updated as well as include sound and video files” “You can recline to read it and you don’t need a keyboard or mouse” Don’t underestimate this last statement. Erganomics play a large role in engagement. Ask yourself how long you spend reading and watching stuff on the web with small netbook and iPhone screens. To really see what the iPad can do, watch this clip about how Sports Illustrated is envisioning their magazine on the iPad, and think about what you could do with that kind of functionality in a textbook:

The iPad will revolutionize textbooks and the way we interact with the web. It has opened up endless possibilities for new ways to enhance good pedagogy as well as  improve differentiation and engagement. These devices will change education, so lets be intentional in how we incorporate them into our practice and mindful of both the positive and negative effects.

Update: Here is a very good counter argument to my claim – The iPad and Higher Education.  The discussion that follows is also very interesting.