Digital Learning with Math

This post is part of a #Peel21st community “blog hop” in which participants share a digital learning experience in math.  After reading this post, be sure to click the links to others’ posts at the bottom of the page, and make your way through all of the contributors.

I am a high school physics teacher and physics naturally has a lot of math in it.  So, I decided I would post about a teaching experience I had a few years back and what it taught me about “21st century students.”

For a long time I have utilized some form of online social networking space in my classes (wikis, blogs, Ning, Elgg, Edmodo, etc.).  I have found that providing an avenue for student voice online has contributed greatly to the sense of community that is built within my classes.  Moreover, I have learned a great deal about my students and about physics from what and how my students share with the class.  I highly recommend it!

Back in 2012, I was using Edmodo because it was easy to use and was one of the few platforms that had a mobile app (something that I think is very important if you want students to use the service).  My students and I regularly shared ideas about physics, and links to YouTube videos that were either useful for learning physics, or demonstrated the amazing applications of physics.  After providing my students with some additional practice questions in class, I logged in to see this:

edmodo post 1

Followed the next day by this:

edmodo post 2

Here is what stuck out most to me:

  1. These posts collectively had 165 replies, and most of the replies were substantial contributions.
  2. The initial posts were not a call for help, but an offer of service.
  3. These students were engaged in discussing mathematical problems on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evening.

Compare this with my students in years previous, who were likely sitting at home, working alone on problems, and probably getting frustrated and giving up.  These days, even if the teacher does not provide an online space for collaboration, students will often create their own because they know how much better they can learn when the connect with others.

Ultimately, the key take-away for me was that students want to learn together, and that digital learning spaces can really help to facilitate that sharing.  Even when learning a subject that is as abstract as math, online spaces permit students to discuss concepts, share what they are learning, and ask for help.  Blended learning environments are becoming essential for digital learners in the 21st century.

Pick a blog to jump to next.  Happy hopping!

Phil Young

Shivonne Lewis-Young

Jay Wigmore

Don Campbell

Jonathan So

Jason Richea

Tina Zita

Graham Whisen


StopMo – #Peel21st Blog Hop

This post is part of a “blog hop” and I am excited about the opportunity to participate.  In this case, a group of educators have decided to post a blog on the same topic at the same time.  This is my first time participating in this type of thing, but I like how it builds a stronger community among bloggers, and I look forward to learning from the other participants.  The focus of this group blogging effort is to explore a educational tech tool.  I have decided to write about an app for creating stop motion videos.  Be sure to link off to the other blog posts at the bottom of this one.

Stop motion has always been something that has captivated me.  I think that my fascination with this form of animation comes from the ability to make impossible motion seem real, because of the careful planning and effort that creators put into their creations, and because it can be just plain fun to watch.

A year ago, a colleague of mine introduced me to the NFB StopMo app, and I immediately saw the value of this tool (and others like it) for education.  As a Science teacher, I am always trying to assess how well my students truly understand some very difficult concepts.  It is one thing for students to be able to recite definitions and equations for certain concepts, but you have to be much more innovative to determine how deep their understanding really goes.  Stop motion is a great way to have students really engage with difficult concepts, and communicate their understanding in a visual way.  Even more than an assessment tool, creating stop motion videos provides a platform for students to work collaboratively and co-construct an understanding of concepts together.  In one of my favourite examples, I worked with a teacher who gave her grade 10 science students a simple task:  produce a stop motion animation of mitosis — use whatever resources you need to understand the process, and whatever materials you want to visualize the process in your animation.  Looking back, I wish I had kept some of the videos, but the results were amazing, and the class was fully engaged for 90 minutes straight.  It was also clear that the students had a thorough understanding of the stages in this important process.

Apps like the NFB StopMo lower the barrier to creative output (something I have blogged about before).  For those of us who lack traditional skills for creative output (fine art, music, drama), these apps provide one avenue for creating content that can actually be very good.  More importantly, with access to an iPad, students and teachers can now create high quality productions that would have been impossible (or extremely expensive) even 10 years ago!

I have used other stop motion apps in the past, but for the purpose of this blog hop, I decided to sit down and tinker with the NFB StopMo app.  I found that the learning curve was incredibly small and the interface was very easy to navigate.  This app costs $2.99, but it is completely worth it!  In only 15 minutes of playing, I was able to produce this masterpiece:

If that video doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will!!


Check out the other posts in this Blog Hop here:

Code.or by Erica Armstrong

Puppet Pals by Debbie Axiak

Scratch Jr. by James Cash

Educreations by Matthew Oldridge

IFTTT by Jason Richea

Photo Editor by Aviary by Tina Zita

Pocket by Greg Pearson

Notability by Phil Young

Social Networks are Supposed to Serve Us, Not the Other Way Around

I was having a meeting yesterday with an educator who wanted to get better acquainted with the online social realm and start cultivating a Professional Learning Network.  Of course, we started with Twitter as a cornerstone for building a PLN, though our conversations wandered into Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.  There is no doubt that if you’re just starting to dip your toe into the online world of social networks, it can be pretty overwhelming, and I could sense that somewhat from my colleague.  At the end of our conversation, I wanted her to be perfectly clear on one thing:  Social networks are supposed to serve us, and not the other way around.

While I have made an effort to join many different social networks (mostly to understand what they’re all about), I don’t feel any obligation to participate in networks that don’t serve my needs.  In general, here is where I put my energy:

  • Facebook – Personal connections with friends and family
  • Twitter – Professional connections and learning
  • Google+ – The occasional update, mostly because it’s a place where I can post files publicly that I hope others will find useful (e.g. my creative commons images)

I get why other people fall in love with Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and other networks.  But, no matter how good these other networks are at what they do, they don’t serve my needs enough to warrant much of my time.

This got me thinking about how I promote social networking in education.  Personally, I have had tremendous success with integrating social networks into my classes in the past (Wikis, Ning, Elgg, Edmodo, GAFE, etc.), and I encourage other educators to try it with their classes.  However, I have heard many teachers complain that, “kids don’t use the course wiki/blog/site; they don’t want a Facebook for education!

I have a strong inclination to think that this lack of participation is an issue of relevance:  Your online classroom exists to serve your students, and not the other way around.  So, if you’re kids are not engaged with your site, you may not have adequately answered the question, “what do my students really need this site for?,” and by extension, “how do I redesign my site or my approach to social networking to address that need?”  (Remember, creating a class blog so that you can assess your students’ writing skills serves your immediate needs, not theirs.)

Here are a few questions to consider if you’ve been disappointed with how your students use your class site:

  • Are you holding onto the reins too tightly?  (e.g. “You are required to write two blog posts that connect to our Sound unit by the end of the week.”)
  • Do kids have the freedom to take some ownership in the online space? (e.g. “Sir, I added a section for funny Physics videos!”)
  • Are you empowering leadership? (e.g. “Melissa – will you be in charge of posting a tricky math problem on the class site every Friday?”)
  • What can kids get on your social network that they cant get anywhere else?  (e.g. Hint:  Class community – Students making help videos, posting photos from class, or sharing inside jokes, etc.)

To be clear, I don’t think you should try and compete with Facebook – you cant, and shouldn’t.  Facebook (or whatever kids use) is already serving the social needs of your students.  What you are trying to do is serve the learning needs of your students.  Posting up assignments is a start – the kids definitely need to have those.  But cultivating a community online that is focused on learning will serve the other needs of your kids:  the need to feel connected to others in learning, the need to have a voice in learning, the need to laugh and have fun while learning, and the need to ask questions and get support while learning.  This is what will make your social network relevant to your students.

Photo Credit:  Tanja Scherm

Are We Visualizing the Same Thing?

Iris_-_left_eye_of_a_girlI recently gave a presentation to the entire staff at my old school.  It was a message about embracing change and the importance of understanding our students better.  The presentation went well, and it was nice to be presenting in a room of “frolleagues” (friend-colleagues).  After the presentation, one of the teachers emailed me to open a dialogue.  He wondered, “if most teachers love technology in their lives, where is the disconnect or lack of teacher initiative for wide-scale use in education?”  It’s an important question, and one that many in the EdTech leadership community would probably have different answers to.

This teacher had an insight that got me thinking about the assumptions I bring when presenting to a group of teachers.  The gist of his insight was that teachers may believe that technology undermines relationships (which most would agree is the heart and soul of teaching and learning).  His thought was that when teachers picture “teaching with technology,” they still see themselves in a computer lab.  Viewed from this lens, the disconnect for teachers between the use of technology in their lives and the use of technology in their classroom, is an issue of visualization – Teachers lack a clear sense of what a 21st century classroom looks like.  And of course, without a clear vision of where you’re heading, it’s hard to make any progress.

My vision of 21st century learning environments doesn’t really involve a computer lab at all.  It was always interesting for me to look over the statistics of the computer lab booking system at my school and compare my use of the lab to others.  Although I was probably one of the teachers at the school who made the most use of technology in my classroom, I was among the lowest users of the computer lab spaces.  Computer labs were, for the most part, a terrible way to integrate technology in my curriculum precisely because it was not embedded.  When my class makes a trip to the computer lab, the use of technology becomes an “event”, rather than part of the necessary background of every day learning.

In terms of relationships, it might very well be the case that teachers see the use of technology as something that is alienating them from their students.  Once again, my experience and the imagery in my mind is the complete opposite.

Reflecting on my own journey as a classroom teacher, I can remember the investments I made into building better relationships with my kids.  What started with “classroom management” turned into “classroom community”, and sent me on a learning journey into cooperative learning, “tribes”, character education, and ultimately shifting my role from a teacher in the traditional sense to that of a mentor or coach.  This became the foundation of my professional practice, and not something that I would ever allow to be compromised through the use of technology.  On the contrary, I believe that my investment in technology has only ever sought to improve my relationships with students – opening conversations that were not possible before, giving me a greater insight into who my students are, giving a platform to help all students find their voice, and opening up new spaces for learning beyond the walls of my classroom.  In my experience, technology considerably improved relationships.

Overall though, I think that teachers are often far too fixated on the image of technology hardware devices in their classrooms, as though that was what defined a 21st century learning environment.  Once again, the use of hardware is only one part (and in my opinion, a small part) of what it means to be a 21st century educator for 21st century students.  The great shift for us is not from “technology-poor” to “technology-rich” environments, but from the “teacher as purveyor of knowledge” to the “teacher as the lead-learner.”  A lead-learner is a mentor and a coach; a lead-learner takes risks and is prepared to fail; a lead-learner is a role-model in the positive use of technology.  Most importantly, a lead-learner does not know all the answers, but is very skilled at asking the right questions, and accessing avenues/resources to answer questions.

In my experience, many teachers might like to think of themselves as a “lead-learner”, but their classroom practice is in fact fairly stagnant and devoid of ongoing progress.  How many teachers do you think take risks on a regular basis (with lesson design, or assignments, or technology, or empowering students, or professional development, etc.)?  How many make new developments on an ongoing basis to push their professional practice to the next level?  Probably not enough.
The implications are important.  How can we ever expect our students to embrace challenge and change (and sometimes failure) if no one is modelling for them what that looks like?  In my opinion, this is what it truly means to be a 21st educator and build 21st century learning environment – teachers need to embrace challenge and change, and they need to learn openly for students to see.

Excitement is Building

The eve of another school year is an exciting time.  As a classroom teacher, and edtech enthusiast, I always have big plans and new ideas for how I am going to develop my teaching strategies and classroom practices.  This year is a bit strange for me because it is the first time in 8 years that I am not returning to the classroom in September.  Instead, I will be starting in my new role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher, and will likely spend my first week in meetings and professional development.  Although different school boards use various terms for this type of position, the mandate of the job is simply to work with classroom teachers (and schools in general) to build the capacity of teachers with the use of instructional technology.  In practice, this could mean anything from helping a teacher get acquainted with a particular tool (such as a Smart Board, document camera, etc.) through to helping teachers redevelop their assessments to engage and empower 21st century students.

If you have read my blog before you will likely know that the ITRT position is very well suited to my interests in education, technology, and leadership.  But, what makes this job so exciting for me is that I feel lucky to be transitioning into this leadership role at an amazing time.  There is an enthusiasm building in my school board, and teachers are embracing the concepts of 21st century classrooms now more than ever before.

Last week, I was a conference put on by the Peel Board called Teaching and Learning in a Digital World (#TLDWpeel).  The amazing thing was that the organizers were planning for 350 attendees, and over 600 teachers came!  I have been to many edtech-y conferences over the years, but this one had a different energy in the air, and there was an enthusiasm that many people commented on.  I believe that energy came from the fact that the attendees were not “edtech enthusiasts”, but were teachers who have slowly been recognizing that an evolution is taking place, and they want to be a part of that change.

The conference reminded me of the Technology Adoption Cycle shown here from Wikipedia:

While it may still be too early to tell, I believe we are at the beginning to see the wave of the “early majority” rising up.  And for me, in my new role, that is very exciting!

Thinking about this blog post, I went online to watch this fun video from a few years back:

Watching the video I was reminded about the risk-taking involved in being an innovator/leader, and the important role of the early adopters who give credibility to the leader’s vision.  But, what really stuck out to me this time was seeing the enthusiasm of the early majority as they run into the scene to be part of the action.

Now, if we can only get a room full of teachers to dance around like this … that would be something!

Image credit Jim Renaud

Fear of Technology

Often I hear teachers say, “technology never works for me,” or “every time I touch a computer, it breaks.”  I can’t even count the number of times a teacher has asked me to help fix a computer problem, and when I perform the same action with them, the problem seems to have gone away.  They say, “of course it works now that you’re here!”

No doubt if you are the resident go-to person for technology at your school, you have heard similar proclamations.

It is understandable why teachers develop a fear of using technology, as there are many things that can go wrong!  Computers and technology actually do a fantastically good job of pointing out the gaps in our understanding.  Moreover, when technology fails in a lesson, you have 30 pairs of eyeballs watching you fumble your way around!  It’s incredibly nerve-wracking to have your lesson fall apart on account of a simple computer issue.

However, my ability to resolve tech-related issues quickly has little to do with my inherent skill with technology, and more with the fact that I have already experienced an incredible number of mistakes, mishaps, and malfunctions using technology.  As it is with learning any new skill, the only way to get good at something is by making all of the mistakes that make you feel like you’re bad at it!

Integrating educational technology is not easy:  It requires innovation, patience, and tenacity.  Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to teachers about a technology that may be new to them, I like to start by emphasizing the role that resilience will play in our eventual success.  By reminding teachers (and students) that some failure is a necessary part of the learning process, we encourage them to embrace the challenge of it, and not lose sight of the end goal.

Of course, sometimes technology even fails for so-called experts.  If lesson 1 for integrating educational technology is to be resilient, then lesson 2 must be to always prepare a backup plan!


Photo Courtesy: Bjorn1101

Limits on Creativity

Creating something new is challenging.

The way I see it, there are two major obstacles to “creating.”  The first is having creativity – you actually have to think creatively to create!  The second is skill – you need certain skills to go from an idea to a product.  For example, if I wanted to draw a picture, I need to be able to envision what I want to draw in my mind (creativity), and then I need to have drawing ability to actually produce the work (skill).  The same can be said for producing music, or writing a short story, or landscaping your backyard, or designing and building a shed, or preparing a delicious meal.  Each of these examples requires having creativity and skill.

I have often felt that I have a desire to be creative but lack the skills to actually produce quality work.  Recently it occurred to me that technology has improved my ability to create because it lowers the barrier on skill.  Technology makes creation more accessible.  For example,  with only a rudimentary level of skill in digital photography, my DSLR camera helps me take (some) great photos.  In addition, programs like Adobe Photoshop, and Lightroom have allowed  me to turn great photos into stunning images that I am incredibly proud to share with friends.  These technologies help me to produce a level of quality that I never could have attained with my limited skills.

Over the past 2 years, I have been thinking a lot about fostering the creativity of my students.  I continue to look for opportunities for students to be creative in my lessons and assignments.  Since technology lowers the barrier to creativity, it has often been the conduit through which my students express themselves.  For example, I have had great success with student blogging, film making, and designing infographics.  My students have started poking fun at me saying,

“Sir, none of our other teachers have ever used the word ‘infographic’, and you say it at least twice a week!”

These days, I am excited to explore  more low-tech forms of creativity in my classes (such as creative writing and drawing).  Sunni Brown gave a great 5 minute TED talk called, “Doodlers, unite!”  In it, she explains the benefits of doodling for brain processing.  I found the talk inspiring  and I am already making plans to incorporate doodling into my Physics lessons on a regular basis this coming semester.  My hope is that doodling encourages a deeper (or more concrete) understanding of concepts in Physics.  And, as a bonus, I might be able reuse some of their cartoon gems to teach concepts to future classes!

Photo Credit: Kim Petersen

Google Cloud Connect

I am always coming across new web tools that help me in my life or in my classroom. With so many web tools popping up all the time, it is difficult to find time to evaluate all of them. In most cases, I will experiment with a new tool and drop it right away. However, every once in a while a tool comes out that makes a significant impact on how I “do things” because it allows me to do something entirely new, or make something I already do faster and easier.  This year I have fallen in love with Google Cloud Connect.

Here’s the situation – I am constantly updating my teaching resources: I create new assignments, I update rubrics, I tweak my templates, I redesign my presentations, I change my writing style. Even when I assign my students an assignment that I developed last year, I always take the time to modify it. Does it need a picture? Is the question confusing? What did students get stuck on? Is the document well laid out?

The reason that “tweaking” is a problem, is that it becomes very difficult to keep my class website updated with the latest versions of each document. Many times, I have made significant changes to an assignment but forgotten to update the web version. This can lead to a major problem when I have some students who lose their assignment sheet and decide to work from the web version of the document, not realizing that the assignment has changed.  Google Cloud Connect is the perfect solution to this problem.

Here’s how it works:  Google Cloud Connect is an add-on for Microsoft Office.  Once installed, it uploads every document you open (automatically or manually) into your Google Docs web archive and keeps the changes you make in sync with the web version.  More importantly, as soon as the document is uploaded, Cloud Connect creates a unique URL for accessing the document online.  By default, all documents are available only to you when you log into Google Docs, however you can also change the sharing permissions on the document right from inside Microsoft Office.

This service has been a huge time saver for me.  From now on, when I update my class website, I create links to the web version of each document stored in my Google Docs account rather than uploading the file to my server space.  Now, every single time I make a change to one of my assignments, the change is immediately synchronized with the web version, so my website is always up to date with the latest version of a document.  No more uploading – It’s automatic!

This service has also come in handy many time for sharing files with other people.  Often other teachers ask to have a copy of something I have created.  In the past, I would have to attach the file to an email, which can be very slow for large presentations with lots of images.  Now, I can simply share the link to the file in an email message.

Cloud Connect has also allowed me to do more marking of student work digitally.  For example, I can open a rubric file, fill it out, save it with a unique name, and email the link to a student without having to mess around with attachments.

Finally, Cloud Connect simply backs up every document I start working on so I never have to worry about losing my work.

As a Google Docs user I have considered transitioning away from Microsoft Office entirely.  I do love Google Docs, and it has a place in my life/classroom, but I am not yet ready to abandon Word and PowerPoint altogether just yet. The reality is that I am a master at word processing and formatting, and there is a lot that I can do in Word that I cannot yet do in Google Docs.  For now, Cloud Connect acts as a perfect bridge between Microsoft Office and Google Docs.

Interpreting the OCT Professional Advisory on Social Media

It is clear that social media will continue to have a profound impact on our society, and the lives of our students.  More and more, teachers are turning to social media to foster learning opportunities both in the class and beyond the walls of the classroom.

Recently, the Ontario College of Teachers released their Professional Advisory for the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media.   If you have not read it already, you can find it on the web here.

In the advisory, the College address the importance of maintaining a professional relationship with students in all forms of electronic communication.  It also provides a list of guidelines that all teachers are expected to follow.  At first glace, it would seem that the OCT is prohibiting the use of social media because of the tone of the document, however this is not the case.  In fact, the OCT is a stong proponent of the appropriate use of social media in the classroom.   The OCT produced a video as a companion to the professional advisory.  It is about 6 minutes and well worth watching.

I was pleased when the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario released their own response to the OCT professional advisory.  ECOO exists to share and disseminate information and to advocate and promote the effective use of computers and associated technologies in the education process.  Their press release is also worth reading.

As a final word, I would encourage all teachers to think about the possible benefits of leveraging more social media in your classes.  There is no question in my mind that it has had a tremendous impact on my classroom.  More than anything, we need to be discussing the pros and cons of social media, and finding ways to maximize the benefits and minimize (or eliminate the risks).  After all, we need to meet our students where they are!

Finally, We Can Access YouTube

For years now it has felt that my school board has been filtering more and more of the internet for students.  It seemed that any site that even had the word “game,” “social,” or “share” was automatically blocked by the board firewall.  As a teacher who likes to experiment with technology and Web 2.0 tools, this has been increasingly frustrating.  There have been many times where I discover a really amazing service from home and develop a lesson around it, only to find that the service has already been blocked at school.

For the longest time, YouTube has been blocked by the firewall.  As a Science teacher, YouTube is an absolutely amazing resource.  There are so many great videos that are useful for demonstrating the applications of science and making the curriculum content more engaging.  A few of my favourite “content related” videos are:

Waves and Sound – Backin’ Up (from schmoyoho, using AutoTune)

Relative Motion – Here It Goes Again (from Ok Go)

Collisions – Exercise Ball Mayhem (from Bensoin)

I have often been told that the school board cannot grant open access to YouTube because of the potentially offensive material that is posted there.  I never really understood this reasoning because students have full access to this content from home and the internet is filled with offensive content that is not filtered from school.  Besides, teachers should be properly supervising students when in a computer lab so that they are not able to view and share offensive video content.

I have also heard that the school board does not have sufficient internet infrastructure to allow all students access to streaming video sites, which I think is a fair reason (although it reveals a different issue for the longterm vision for technology access in schools.)

Last year, the school board started providing teachers with an override code to the filter.  It wasn’t a full solution, but it gave us some additional access to sites like YouTube.  However, in the last 2 weeks there has been what I would regard as a major shift – Students and teachers have been granted full access to both YouTube and Twitter!

What impresses me about this recent development is that after many years of tighter and tighter constraints on internet access, I believe that my school board is starting to realize the untapped potential of bringing Web 2.0 into the classroom.  It signals a changing mindset among “the higher ups” that instructional technology is not only an asset in 21st century learning, but a necessity for creating engaging learning environments for our students.  I hope this trend continues.

Personally, I struggle with filtering the internet in secondary schools.  I think there are some things that we can all agree have no obvious use in an academic school setting, like pornography.  But, I really don’t think that gaming sites, and social networking sites are that big of a problem.  If anything, the issue is one of adequate supervision.

What are your thoughts?  Should we be filtering the internet in schools?

Image Credit:  VancityAllie