Sunday, January 30, 2011

Student excuses

Working online adds a whole new field of student endeavor – excuses for why the work didn’t get done.  The trick is to sift out the real problems from the mealy-mouth I-hope-you’ll-buy-this excuses. 
finger mobile 7photo © 2005 J E Theriot | more info (via: Wylio)

I’m a firm believer in heading off problems before they occur, so:
  • The first time I ask students to do something, I have them do it F2F in the computer lab.  That way, I can head off misunderstandings, balky technology, fooling around instead of learning.  That first time builds confidence.  This may be the Facebook generation, but they do not automatically know how to use a discussion forum. 
  • I post assignments both on the class moodle and on the class Edline page (a class webpage the school provides).  That way, if the student forgot their moodle password, they can still do the work.  The discussion may not be available, but the student can still write down the work and hand it in or email it to me.  The extra minutes are worth it to me since I eliminate wiggle room.
  • For written work, students always have the option of emailing it to me (a godsend for the organizationally challenged), saving the work to a flash drive to print at school, or even hand-wlriting the work.  This eliminates the ever-popular “my printer isn’t working” excuse.  

Early in the year, I get a fair number of excuses along the lines of “I forgot my password.”  I might forgive late work once, letting the student know that this won’t work again. 

But later in the year, what I mostly get is just plain old excuses.  Not reasons, excuses. I usually deal with these face to face because that's when I hear them. 
  1. Gee, I just couldn’t get on, so I couldn’t do the work.  I see, so you waited until 10 PM the night before something was due, then tried to login, and couldn’t remember your password.  Is that right?  Um, yes.  But you have alternatives to do the work, don’t you, so where is it?
  2. “It” wouldn’t work.  Um, could you be a bit more specific.  Just exactly what wouldn’t work?  Which “it” are we talking about here?  Um….
  3. I tried to finish the work, but “it” just wouldn’t let me.  Gee, I checked.  You did half the work a week ago, and haven’t logged in since then, so how is that trying to finish the work? 
  4. We lost internet.  That might actually be true (many of us live in rural areas). I consider whether the student is generally truthful. 
  5. Excuse number 557 from the “usual suspects.”  When kids always have an excuse, I assume they are lying to me again, and don’t accept the excuse.  This is a lesson in creating your own reputation. 
  6. Well my computer isn’t cabled to the printer so I couldn’t print.  And you couldn’t email it or save it on a flash drive/data stick to print at school or hand write it?
  7. When I click nothing happens.  Really?  Both places that I posted the work?
  8. Well, we were really busy…  And you knew about the work for a week, right?  Um…  Considering that we did a media literacy unit in which students made clear that they are online quite a bit for Facebook and online games, the “I didn’t have time” excuse doesn’t get flown much. 
  9.  I particularly love the excuses that only surface after I have posted grades.  Well I couldn’t…  I'm wondering why you didn’t you tell me this last Thursday, when you were supposed to do the work. 
Parent excuses are a whole other thing.  I’ll give any student one parent excuse.  After that, because there are parents who just can’t bear for their child to receive consequences for their choices, I don’t accept parent excuses.  I tell the parents I’ll give their child an extension this one time – this makes me reasonable and responsive, but not a pushover.  I make sure to give my principal a copy of the emails to avoid those nasty end-runs.

Students are endlessly inventive when it comes to excuses.  But we don’t have to be pushovers.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow day results

    As students get more used to using the Moodle on snow days (New England is giving us a lot of practice this year), here are some important observations:
Snow Plowphoto © 2010 James Lee | more info (via: Wylio)

1.    Students continue to need a way to reach the teacher.  Some will use the forums, but when a kid has a problem, that kid wants a specific connection.  How ironic that my students, who tell me they “never use email” then use email to reach me when they have a technical problem, or can’t figure out how to do something.  For middle schoolers, I think the privacy of email has a real appeal – they don’t have to feel foolish in front of their peers, which is their most enormous and ever-present fear.  With adults, one might suggest a student post their question in a forum, but this isn’t something I’d suggest with adolescents.  This means, you need access to your school email and you need to check it regularly throughout the day. 

2.    Students start exploring beyond the original assignment, so it’s useful to have other materials ready.  I found students working ahead on vocabulary work we aren’t even going to start for a week.  I haven’t introduced it, we haven’t discussed it, I haven’t assigned it.  But they’re doing the work anyway.  Then I remember how I appreciate in my adult classes when the prof gives us ways to work ahead.  But this also makes me think. Time on task.  I really hope I have created such an appealing environment online that kids will stay there longer.  The longer they are engaging with my content – time on task -  the happier I am.

      Snow day work is much less pressured.  It leaves time to explore.  We aren’t in the computer lab pressured by the 42 minute period; they aren’t soldiering through homework after a tiring day at school.  It’s important that there are lots of resources already available for students to stumble on.  I had found a great interactive that simulates arguments in a trial – perfect preparation for our mock trial.  At least one student found it and wrote about it on the snow day forum I set up.  Students also went back to an earlier conversation and extended it, including comments about what they were noticing.  The moodle has always showed who was online before, but in the computer lab, nobody noticed that – now they can see who else is online, and they like that.

3.    Another faculty member at my school has implemented snow day work using Edline (each class has a web page).  He told kids about expectations in class, emailed parents – and got 100% homework completion.  Kids were complaining their parents wouldn’t let them go out until they finished their work.  This works!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Shoveling around snow days

    As we begin snow day number four, or is it five, I wanted to share with you a way to keep your classes moving forward.  Regardless of whether you have Edline, Moodle, a class webpage, or another online resource like these, you probably already have a way to manage snow days online.
Snow Shovelsphoto © 2010 Mike Procario | more info (via: Wylio)

1.    Communicate your expectations.  Let students know in class, and parents know via email, that you will be posting work which you expect students to do whenever there is a snow day.  If you live in an area with spotty electrical/internet service, let parents know this is contingent on your having service. 

2.    Decide what you want students to accomplish and gather the necessary resources for them to use.  Some examples:
  • Background reading.  Since students may not have texts at home with them (or may say they don’t), provide other readings.  Textbook publishers frequently have rich resources available.  So much material is available online that you are likely to be able to find a number of interesting articles for your students to read which relate to what you’re doing right now in class.  If you keep these links bookmarked or in a Word document, these will be readily available.  Even if you forgot your list at school, a few minutes of Googling is likely to help bring up at least some of what you want.
  • Activities.  Ask thought-provoking questions.  Don’t do spit-back questions-at-the-end-of-the-chapter.  You have a great opportunity for students to pause and think.  Ask questions like: Why do you think X is taking place? What would happen if Y changed?   Those great questions you never have enough time for in class.
  • Online resources.  You always wanted to take the class to the computer lab to look at that great math website, or science videos website, or primary sources website.  Consider also:  what do you want students to do with this resource? Explore, experiment, evaluate?  Caveat:  If this was a website you wanted students using under supervision, don’t use it for a snow day.  Unless you want parent complains, don’t link to YouTube, where students are only one click away from inappropriate content. Of course, students go there themselves, but why set yourself up?
  • PowerPoints.  Some teachers/texts have PowerPoint presentations of key material.  You may wish to post these, especially in AP classes. 
  • Activities. Discussion.  See this post about how to set up a discussion in Edline.  I much prefer Moodle discussions which are easier to set up and provide more variety.
3.    Tell students what you want them to do today, on the snow day. 
  • In Edline, the easiest way to do this is in News.  Click on the pen & paper icon to the right of News.  Click on Add, then add content as you usually do.  I make the title explicit:  Snow Day – January 21.  I usually just select Enter Text by Hand.  Be specific.  If you have study guides, assignment sheets you refer to, be sure these have already been uploaded to the Content section of your Edline page.  You can include any links to readings or resources as part of what you’re writing.  If you are using the same directions for more than one class, select the other classes you want and click Save. 
  • In Moodle, I place the directions (in a label) so they are the first thing students see after they login.
4.    Communicate your expectations to parents and students.  Send an email (my school uses Edline for this) to all parents and students in each class, reminding them that you’ve got work for the day posted, and where it is.  Not all students check their email, but adults are more likely to, and parents want their kids learning. 

5.    When school starts again, discuss the work.  The first time, a fair number of students will not have done the work, but participation improves with experience.


1.    What about power outages and dropped internet service?  Be understanding, but treat the work like class work that was missed due to a sick day and needs to be made up.

2.    What about the kid who says s/he forgot the password and couldn’t login?  Really?  This is where due dates and assignments are posted, but the kid suddenly forgot the password? And didn’t ask parents – who also have an account – for assistance?  Treat this as class work that has to be made up.

3.    What about kids/parents who forgot about the work entirely?  Treat this as class work that was missed due to a sick day.  If it has to be made up, the student is less likely to forget next time.

4.    What if I don’t have power/internet service?  Don’t beat yourself up.  You probably have bigger difficulties to cope with than a missed day of classes.

Comments, suggestions, additions welcome.  This is cross-posted to

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The value of lurking

Kids who won’t post on the discussion forums used to drive me nuts.  Actually still drive me nuts.  I know they have ideas to contribute, and would benefit from being in on the conversation.  But they don’t post their ideas, even though they lose points.
Lurkphoto © 2005 Zara Evens | more info (via: Wylio)

For a long time I thought they just weren’t participating at all, unless I took the class to the computer lab with the express assignment to be part of the discussion. 

Only then I noticed that students who weren’t posting were still logging in from home.  That meant they went to the trouble to go online, find the website, login…  but not post.  Moodle doesn’t show me the number of posts they read as D2L does (or at least I haven’t discovered that feature), but it does show me when students last logged in. 

I started to look for patterns with one student.  He hardly ever posts, but he logs in several times a week.  Given that many students are posting throughout the week, there’s often new material to read every day.  So it follows that he must be reading it. 

Is he getting something out of that reading?

Yes.  The community is losing out because he isn’t actively contributing, but is he still getting something out of it?  I have to say yes. 

After all, how many blogs do I read but not comment on – dozens.  Do I get something out of that?  Of course.  I read a lot of blogs before I felt comfortable commenting on a stranger’s blog.  It’s easier now, but I was a blog lurker for a long time.  And still read dozens of blogs without feeling the need to comment on most of them.  Guess that means I’m still a lurker.

So returning to those students who lurk, if they’re logging in to read, they are benefiting. 

That doesn’t mean I’m going to change my grading – because most students are powerfully motivated to earn those points for discussion participation, resulting in often vibrant and certainly interesting discussions.

But it does mean I’m not going to fret about my lurkers quite so much.

Thanks to Dan Pontefract, whose musings on lurking got me thinking about this topic.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Groups and discussions in Moodle, Part 2

     In a previous post we looked at discussion forum possibilities, but here we’re going to focus on how groups work with discussions, because if you do it wrong, your students won’t be able to participate and there will be frustration all around

     Since groups can limit your discussion forum choices, why work with groups?  You often don’t want the discussion group to be too large – it gets to be too much reading which frustrates students.  For example, I have about 50 students in 2 classes for just one subject, and that’s way too much reading.  Think of having to wade through all those original posts and the comments; kids just won’t do it, and that reduces the effectiveness of the discussion tool.  Another reason to work with groups:  I have students working in small groups on a mock trial; since they’re in a competitive situation, I may want to provide students with discussion work space that’s not available to a team they’re competing with.  Or I might just want to give a group a separate space where tey won’t be distracted.

     Moodle offers visible and separate groups.  Visible shows group membership, but still allows students to see – and comment – on each others’ posts.  But if you wants student work to be in separate groups, in terms of mechanics, here’s what to do:
  • If you want to use groups, you can’t use single simple forum.  The Groups function seems to need separate threads, and there are no separate threads here, so this forum type won’t work. This is true for both visible (students can see everybody’s postings, but group membership is identified) and separate groups (students can only see their own group’s postings). 

  • When you’re setting up the forum, and you want to keep groups completely separate, select both Separate Groups and Available for group members only. The choices look like this.  Important:  You’ll have to click on Show advanced to get to the Available for group members checkbox.  (You can read in a lot of gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair for this little tip.)
        Abundant thanks to Russ Willis of Globalclassroom  for helping me tease out my understanding of groups. 

        Want to set up groups in the first place?  Here’s a link to a helpful video, created by G4 Ventures, that explains how.

    Saturday, January 8, 2011

    Choosing the right discussion forum type in Moodle, Part 1

        Moodle offers several different kinds of discussion forums, and I’m still discovering the nuances.

    A Standard forum for general use, the default, allows for posting a question, and then students can post separate threads.  This makes it easy to see who posted, at least initially.  The difficulty is that there are quickly a lot of threads, in essence little separate discussions, possibly not what you want.  The separate discussions can be quite lively, but I’m finding this doesn’t make for a cohesive discussion.  Think of lots of little tangents, not really visible in one place, and you’ll see how this could be problematic. When you first start working with Moodle, the temptation is to use this, since it’s the default, but it may not be the best choice for what you’re trying to accomplish with your students.  See the sample:

    A Single simple forum allows the posting of one question, and students simply reply.  This looks the most like discussions in graduate level online courses (with D2L, for example).  It also gets the student to the point of answering fastest.See the sample:

    A variant on the Standard forum is  Each person posts one discussion, which is nice when you want each student working on their own thread.  I’ve used this for personal reflections by each student, with subsequent conversations between the teacher and the student.  Very powerful.  (See Feedback improving student-teacher relationship.)

    A really interesting variation is the Q & A forum, which I use if I want students to post their response to a prompt before they see what everybody else has posted.  Students can’t see what others have posted, or reply to them, until they have posted themselves.  I like this for avoiding the “me, too” kind of response.  I wouldn’t use this as the first kind of forum students use, because they need to feel comfortable with both the technology (do I know how to do this?) and with the situation (am I comfortable saying what I think in this environment?).  It does help students reflect about their own thoughts before getting immersed in other people’s.

         To see the mechanics of setting up a forum, see this helpful video by DomanskiRPS. (Thanks to Moodle News for letting the moodle world know about this and other videos.

    There are several considerations for working with discussion forums when it comes to groups, and that’s the topic for Part 2.  (One important hint:  the single simple forum won’t work with groups of any kind.)

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Some things I like about Moodle

    Versatility of discussion tools:

    • Example:  I can set up a discussion with a thread for every vocabulary word.  Students reply with pictures, definitions, words used in sentences, in a rich demonstration of understanding.  I wrote about that here.
    •  Example:  Discussion where students have to post before they can read what other students say – which really cuts down on “me, too” posts.  Not all discussions have to be this way, but sometimes I really want students to tell me what they think without giving them a chance to hide behind other peoples’ thoughts. 
    • Example:  Groups.  I can give discussion access only to members of a work-group.  This is also handy when I don’t want students to have to read postings from so many others that they turn off. 

        Vibrant community – While there is no vendor to call, there are many other generous, helpful Moodle users who freely give of their time and talents.  Blogs, collections of video tutorials are everywhere

        Choice – one can pay to have somebody else host their Moodle classes (my choice) or download Moodle and run it oneself.  As an individual teacher paying for this out of my own pocket, this isn’t breaking the bank, and I get plenty of support from my vendor (Globalclassroom).

         I’m still exploring all the tools that Moodle has to offer.  There are enough that I can often start in Moodle instead of having to learn a new tool, and set up still another set of userids and passwords for all my students. Less work?  Yesssss!