Sunday, November 23, 2014

Free Doesn't Mean Barrier Free

Source: Flickr user Sybren Stüvel
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Last week I had an interesting conversation with a parent that illuminated an issue that I think is important to those of us who are using, or advocating the use of digital tools in the classroom: Free tools aren’t necessarily barrier free. In this case, her concerns arose not from how tools were being used in the classroom, but the expectations around students and parents using these tools at home. This parent wanted to be involved in her child’s education, and had made several attempts to the issues her family was experiencing addressed by the school. To be specific, this parent was experiencing issues with using Google Apps for Education and the chosen home/school communication tool while on the family computer at home and on mobile devices.

As teachers, I believe our responsibility is to ensure that all areas of our practice are as barrier-free as possible. While we want to provide an engaging experience for our students and their families, we first need to make sure they can access those experiences at school, at home, and anywhere else they might need to. If our students and families can’t access learning experiences and communications with the resources they have at hand, then it is our responsibility to meet their needs, not their responsibility to purchase the newest, latest and greatest hardware or software.

Here are a few thoughts that I had based my conversation that should be considered for tools that you are going to place a heavy reliance on in your classroom.

Know your community

One of the first things that I did each year was to survey my students and their families to find out what kind of internet access was available in their homes, and how much access they had to a computer or other networked devices (tablets, phones, etc.). This informed many of my other decisions around integrating educational technology in the classroom.

Passwords and Accounts are Barriers

With regard to home/school communication tools, passwords and accounts are barriers. I think that our responsibility as teachers is to make our classrooms as accessible and transparent as possible, so it is my responsibility to ensure that parents can access that information without having one more account or one more password to remember. In addition, my own experience has been that when you require a parent to enter a password to view information about their child’s class, they are much less likely to visit the website or resource. 

Most parents want to know the following things on a regular basis:

  • What did my child’s class do today? (*Notice the wording - “my child’s class” not “my child”. Specific information about any child should be communicated confidentially to a parent via another means)
  • Do they have any homework?
  • What can I do to help them?
  • Is there anything coming up that I need to be aware of (field trips, assessments, school celebrations, etc.)

None of this information is confidential and parents and students can only benefit when they have access to this information. When we choose a tool that means a parent needs to sign up for a new account, or enter a password to receive this information, we have put a barrier in place. If you have things that demand greater security, you can put them in password protected locations such as Google Drive or a learning management system such as Desire2Learn or Moodle.

It is specifically for this reason that I have advocated for classroom teachers to use public blogs to communicate with families. Blogger and Wordpress are my favourite tools and both offer easy options to have parents subscribe by email. Blogs are also easy to push into Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms if you have a community who uses these social networks. The reality is that most parents aren’t on Twitter, but most have email, so at the bare minimum, you need to choose a platform that parents can sign up for easy email updates.

Responsibility to Understand the Tools we Use

One of the concerns raised by the parent that I was speaking to was that her child had a great deal of difficulty accessing Google Apps for Education (GAFE) on their home computer and mobile devices. Their home computer was a little bit older, and as regular users know, GAFE works best with an up to date version of Chrome (and works well with up to date versions of any of the other major browsers). The experience on mobile devices is best on Android, decent on iOS, but sorely lacking for Blackberry users. 

If we are using GAFE, we should be prepared to help students and their families understand how to effectively use these tools on any device. We should not assume that just because it is free, that it is easily used by all students and families. Luckily, Google has built in features that make it easy to download Google Docs that make it easy for students to save their work to a USB key in a variety of formats including the OpenDocument format, which can be opened and edited with the free office editing suite OpenOffice (you can even get a portable version that can be run off of a USB key). 


In some cases, you may have a student or parent who has absolutely no internet access, and no computer or other networked devices. In this case, feel free to print! Blogs and Google Docs can both be easily printed. One of the easiest ways to print a blog for easy reading is to use the Clearly extension for Chrome. It removes all of the sidebar elements from your blog, just leaving the posts. If you’re printing a Google Doc, be sure to double or triple space it, so that the student has room edit the document.

Building Digital Literacy for Parents

Another option for teachers is to work with parents to build their digital literacy skills. Most parents want to be involved in their children’s education, so consider sending home “cheat sheets” that are personalized with their child’s username/password for the tools you will be using on a regular basis. You might also consider offering evening learning opportunities for parents where you and your students teach parents about the tools you are using in class.

Obviously I sincerely believe that teachers should be offering their students engaging learning experience that leverage the power of digital learning tools and resources. We need to remember that we can’t let our own enthusiasm for a certain tool overwhelm the need to ensure it is accessible to our students and their families.

I’d love to hear other suggestions for ensure your digital learning experiences are accessible to all students and their families in the comment section.

Steps to download a Google Doc
File menu --> Download As --> Choose a format

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#FAIL . . . As In, I Failed in my Big Plan

This afternoon I failed. Kind of big time. I'd posted on Google+ and Twitter that I was going stream a Hangout on Air (HOA) as I worked with a group of Kindergarten teachers on setting up classroom blogs. I had the resources prepared, and I had no problems with traffic on my way to the school. I'm passionate about blogging and thing that it is a fantastic way to improve home/school communication.

And then things started going wrong. I didn't read my email closely enough. Although I had the event booked for 3:00 pm in my calendar, and that's what I'd advertised, the school didn't even finish until 3:40 pm. That was totally my fault, not the fault of anyone at the school. In spite of that, I started my Hangout at 3:00, just in case anyone was expecting to start then. One brave soul was there (THANK YOU whomever you were and I apologize). Unfortunately, I had no way to directly communicate with them, because I hadn't sent them a direct invite, so I guess they couldn't join the hangout and we couldn't actually interact. I tried to let that person know about my mistake, and that I was hoping to actually start around 3:45 om.

I wanted to see if I could restart the video for my HOA, because I thought that at least people wouldn't need to watch 20 min of me getting my act together, so I tried stopping and starting it. Apparently there is no way to restart it. So, I needed to set up a new HOA. I did that and left the link to the new HOA in the old event.

Eventually the teachers arrived, but some had to change plans, and it ended up that the teachers I was working with had already started blogs and seen my presentation on why blogging is awesome before. So, to be fair to them, I just jumped ahead into blog set up. They'd already done most of it, but I didn't want to totally neglect my attempt to do a Hangout on Air, and I figured I could clean it up again. Again, I apologized to the TWO viewers who were watching the hangout and I will record that screencast that takes you through my presentation on why I think blogging is fantastic in the near future.

The teachers I worked with were fantastic as I tried to balance getting information out via YouTube and addressing their needs in the classroom and I really appreciate that people gave up their time to try and take part in this professional learning.

The last element of failure, was that I tried to go into YouTube editor to clean up the HOA video, and I don't think I can!  It's not even showing up in my playlist. So I'm stuck with this disastrous 1.5 hour video, and I can't even erase the parts that show me just waiting to get started (if you want to torture yourself, you can watch it here - it should start midway through where I actually start taking people through the blog set up). I'm hoping it shows up soon in my list of videos that I can edit.

So, would I do this again? Probably. I think that there is value in attempting to share professional learning opportunities in real time, and archiving them on YouTube can help the people who were there and want to revisit the work or let visual learners access the learning in a way that fits their learning style better. I think that the single most important change I will make is to actually make sure that I have some real people in the hangout at remote locations, so that I can get effective feedback, in real time.

Thanks again to the teachers and viewers who gave up their time. I hope that I can do a better job next time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Online Calendars: Am I just doing it for them?

"_TMH1094" by Flickr user Tia is
licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“So am I teaching them to be organized, or am I just doing it for them?”  That was what my friend Tracy asked me as we were discussing options around moving away from traditional paper based agendas and looking at digital options. I had suggested considering using Google Calendar.  It met many of the conditions that were necessary:
  • free
  • accessible to parents
  • accessible on a variety of platforms including the web
  • it didn’t require new accounts (her students already use Google Apps for Education)

What prompted her question was my suggestion that she actually do most of the work to populate the calendar and add her students as viewers. For years, I’ve heard the argument that using an agenda teaches students better self-regulation skills, and I think there may be some value to that, for some students.  However, in my experience, “agenda time” meant that all students copied the exact same thing off the board and I walked around the class to verify they had done so. The reaction of many of my students (at various grade levels), was something like, “[Groan], I don’t even use this.  Why do I have to do it?” and I tended to agree with them. I’m pretty sure that students get enough practice in copying things down in school. That’s why I switched to a classroom blog several years ago and stopped requiring all students to use a paper agenda.  They were free to use one if they chose to, but I wasn’t going waste their time, or mine, on copying from the board.

My rationale for creating the calendar and populating it (and this applies to blogs and many other online tools teachers may use as well), is that we want to teach students to appreciate the value in an organizer, and how to use it as a valuable reference tool. With a paper agenda, I might have students copy “Math Test on Friday” off of the board, but if I use an electronic calendar, I can actually link to activities and resources that will help them study.  A paper agenda can be misplaced at home or at school.  A online calendar can’t be lost, and because I can add parents as viewers of the calendar, I no longer need to check agendas each day.  

I think that if students come to see their electronic calendars (classroom blogs/sites/organizers/etc.) as resources that provide valuable information to them (through the use of links and attachments), and are accessible in a variety of formats (e.g. on mobile devices, the web, or even in a variety of printed formats), they will begin to consider the use of these tools independently and in a format that works best for them.  If a teacher models the use of the Calendar and points out the resources that are included, students have a reason to use these tools outside of the classroom. Then students will have actually learned something beyond how to copy.

For more on how you might use Google Calendar in your classroom click here to see Google for Education's official resources.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Anecdotal Voice Comments with Google Forms and Mobile Devices

One of the biggest challenges for me as a classroom teacher was keeping track of my observations and anecdotal comments.  My normal solution was to carry a clipboard around the classroom, with some line paper or a checklist for making observations, and then file those in a somewhat haphazard manner, to be accessed when it was time to write reports.  I don't think it was a great solution and it didn't serve me, or my students the best.

Last year, I was working with a primary teacher, and she wanted to know what she might be able to do with her smartphone to make use of it in her classroom.  She didn't really see herself using Google Apps for Education with her students, but wondered if there might be a way take advantage of the phone and GAFE for some kind of assessment purposes.

After a few minutes of brainstorming, I thought about combining the power of the voice to text engine in the phone, with the simplicity of a Google Form and the power of Google Spreadsheets to organize and review data that has been captured.  Put them together, and you have a very simple way to record and organize the observations and comments you make about the students in your classroom.

The video below will take you through the complete process of setting up a Google Form, getting it to your smartphone (or other mobile device with a voice to text engine), and organizing the data to make it easy to use for reporting and conferencing.  It supplements the tip sheet that I prepared for Ontario GAFE Summit in the spring of 2014.

Since demonstrating this with several teachers and administrators and helping them set up their own forms, we've come up with a variety of uses and considerations that I'll list below.
  • You don't have to use the voice-to-text.  If you have an observation that you wouldn't like others to overhear, simply type it out the way you normally would.
  • You can still use the form from your laptop computer if you'd like to make observations there
  • In the demo, I used a simple field (Subject) to categorize the data.  You could choose to use specific curriculum expectations to organize your observations.  In this case, you might want to make a different form for each subject/class that you are planning on using this tool in.
  • If you try getting specific (as described in the point above), you don't need to put ALL of the curriculum expectations for a subject in at once.  You can simply put in the observations that you are currently working on, and change them on a weekly (or other timeframe) basis.
  • Administrators can use this tool to record observations from walk-throughs (though again, they may find it more useful to type confidential information).
  • Students with mobile devices could adapt this to record their own reflections on their work
  • You could add a second paragraph text item to allow students to add their own response to your comments/observations during conferencing.
  • For more ideas check out Molly Schroeder's "Innovative Uses of Google Forms" page.  Many of those ideas could be adapted to take advantage of the voice-to-text engines build into various devices.
In terms of the security of your anecdotal comments and observations, Google Drive is a very secure platform, but you should pay attention to your school board's policies about what information can be stored in the cloud.  You should also be aware that your GAFE administrator could access your account (if necessary), and should be comfortable explaining any comments/observations to students/parents/administrators, etc.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Getting Started with the Google Drive Desktop App

The Google Drive Desktop App allows you to sync folders from your computer with your Google Drive Account.  It functions much like Dropbox except that it give you WAY more space.  For teachers (and students), the nice thing about using the Google Drive App, is that if you are using a home computer, you can simply save your work from any program (i.e. MS Word, Movie Maker, Audacity, iMovie, etc.) to your Google Drive folder and then still be able to access it when you are at school and using your Google Apps account. Lost memory sticks? Not a problem because your work is saved directly to the cloud.

A couple of things to note...

  1. You still need to enable offline access for your Google Docs/Sheets/Slides (it's shown in the tutorial).
  2. You can only set up the Google Drive Desktop App for one Google Account at a time.  So if you have a personal account and a work account, you will need to choose between them (tip: create a shared folder for stuff you need access to from either account).  Teachers who are storing student data, should use their Google Apps for Education (GAFE) Account and not their personal Gmail accounts.
  3. Files that have been shared with you won't sync until you add them to "My Drive" or a synced folder in your Google Drive.

In the video below, I will show you how to set up the Google Drive Desktop App using a Windows 8 computer and the new Google Drive interface.

Signing in to Google Drive

One of the most common questions I get from teachers who are new to Google Chrome is, "Why is it asking me to sign in to Chrome?"

The answer is that signing into Chrome allows you back up your account information to Google's servers.  The benefit of this is that when you sign in to Chrome from another location (say, on your home computer instead of your school computer), you will continue to have access to all of the sites that you have bookmarked, your browsing history, or that cool extension that you downloaded at school (but now forget the name of).  Google will even sync your saved passwords (if you give it permission to - personally, I prefer LastPass because I think it is more secure). Bookmarks can even be shared between your mobile devices using the Google Chrome browser and your desktop/laptop devices, so when you're on the road and come across a great site with your phone, simply save it to your mobile bookmarks and quickly find it when you return to the full browser.

In the short screencast below, I'll take you through the steps of signing in to the Chrome Browser.  I've done it using my YRDSB Google Apps for Education Account, so some viewers may see an extra single-sign-on step that you won't be asked to complete.

Imagine, no more working to find the perfect site on the weekend only to forget what it is on Monday and no longer be able to find it.  With your synced bookmarks and browsing history, it should be a snap!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Google Teacher Academy ATL 2014 Reflection

Google Teacher Academy - Atlanta 2014
It’s now almost a month since I attended Google Teacher Academy (GTA) in Atlanta. I began using GAFE in my classroom in 2007, and it was a long term dream for me to attend the GTA, but personal and professional circumstances made it difficult for me to apply before last year (I applied to the GTA in Chicago last year, but wasn’t selected). This year, there are 11 GTAs around the world, so it definitely provide more opportunities to be selected.

Google Teacher Academy was a chance to meet some amazing educators from across North America and around the world. It was less about the Google tools that we use (although we did get an early introduction to Google Classroom) and more about making connections and problem solving. Through the idea of “Moonshot Thinking”, we were pushed to consider problems that we experience in education and envision ways that we might work together to solve them. Andy Plemmons (@plemmonsa) has posted a very detailed reflection on the Atlanta GTA that includes thorough descriptions of the kinds of activities that we participated in, and I’d recommend reading it if you are interested.

New Canadian GCTs
at ATL2014
One of the things I was thrilled with, was to see how many Canadians were selected for the two GTAs happening this summer in the US. The GAFE community is growing rapidly in Canada, particularly in Ontario and Alberta, and it’s great to see Google recognizing this and supporting Canadian educators.

The GTA reflected what I believe is the strength of Google in Education. The agenda and resources are publicly accessible, so while only a relatively small number of teachers are able to attend the GTA, anyone can use the ideas that were shared in their own classroom. The GTA also helped develop my confidence in pushing harder to see the changes that I think are necessary in education. My own passion, is to re-imagine the way that professional development is delivered to teachers and, if they aren’t getting the PD they need, to help them learn strategies to connect with communities of educators and get it for themselves. Along with Jim Jamieson, I will continue to organize our YRDSB EdTech Camps, but we are also developing opportunities for administrators to develop their own digital leadership skills. I want to try and make sure that I don’t give as many “one and done” professional development sessions by making more screencasts and offering PD opportunities via Google Hangout.

Another takeaway from GTA was how fortunate we are to work as educators in Ontario as opposed to many jurisdictions in the US. Many teachers I spoke with at the GTA and ISTE talked of needing second jobs to support their families over the summer and stringent standardized testing for all students that impacted both their compensation and their tenure.  While I think that we are generally respected as professionals, I developed a new appreciation for the role of our teacher federations who work to ensure that the gains teachers have made over the years for both themselves and their students are not eroded for short term economic reasons.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to participate in the Google Teacher Academy and become a Google Certified Teacher.  I look forward to collaborating with my cohort of GTA ATL 2014 on projects and helping connect the teachers I work with on a regular basis to the network of passionate GCTs. Thanks to all the folks at Google and CUE for organizing these opportunities, our lead learners and the amazing educators who shared their experiences and expertise.