Monday, April 25, 2011

Using technology for the final exam?

    I’ve been thinking about how to give my final exam this year.  Traditionally I have half multiple choice for vocabulary/grammar and half essay.  I’m not a big fan of multiple choice, but it does the job when I need to quickly assess (and there is often not much time between when I give the final exam and when grades must be submitted). For midterms and finals, I like to have part objective (multiple choice) and part essay to accommodate students with varying strengths. 
exam testphoto © 2010 Sean MacEntee | more info (via: Wylio)

    Creating a multiple choice test on Moodle is incredibly time-consuming, so I just don’t see the value in that for one or two tests a year.  (Ordinarily, I have students demonstrate they know how to use vocabulary words by writing original sentences using the words; this is more time-consuming to grade, but is an assessment tied directly to the learning.  )

    It’s the essay that I’d like to computerize.  Alternatives include: 

  • Write in Word and print out. 
  • Reply to a Moodle Q & A prompt, which hides students’ work from each other.  (Many students write first in Word, then copy into Moodle).

    One consideration:  I’m required to have exam papers for any parents/students/principals who want to see the grading, so all papers need to be hard copies.  This makes Word a better deal. 

    It’s hard, though, to keep an eye on the 25 computers in the computer lab simultaneously (we used to have Vision software but it never worked correctly with our network, so I’m supervising the old-fashioned way).  I can use assigned seating to minimize copying, and deliberately isolate students who have cheated in the past. 

    Is it worth it?  To have work I can read easily is terrific.  Even better, most of my students are accustomed to writing at a computer, and do better when they can edit at a keyboard. 

    I think I’m going to ask my students what they think. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Using surveys

   When we studied media literacy, students helped design the survey about media use (including a separate survey for parents), took the survey, then analyzed the results.  We did most of the activities F2F in class so we could do small group work, and also to support Excel use, which is one tool that doesn’t come easily to most students.  Among our findings:  kids text a great deal more than parents do, while parents watch more TV, but both groups use Facebook. 

    I use the free version of SurveyMonkey, which is amazingly versatile – good for gathering information, and for assessing understanding – and middle school students seem to both enjoy taking surveys and seeing the aggregate results. 

    The free version of SurveyMonkey is limited, though.  In the past, I used a paper survey for media literacy, and was able to separate out the results by gender.  I discovered this wasn’t possible using the free version, since it doesn’t allow for downloading the results.  It did allow us to ask about how students use lots of media tools, though, by using the matrix of choices.  Next year, I’ll use identical surveys, one for boys, and one for girls.  (Good ol’ workarounds!)

    As the year is winding down I’m going to use another survey, replacing the past paper survey with SurveyMonkey again. Some things I want to ask are: which activities students enjoyed the most and least, what they wished we had done but didn’t, what they thought about working with Moodle, advice for next year’s students.  In the past, it took me so long to go through the year-end paper surveys, I didn’t have a chance to share the results with my students.  This year, they’ll be able to see the totals right away; we can discuss the results as a class.  Then we can all learn something from the survey, not just me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Keeping track of all that writing/talking

    I used to go to the Moodle discussion forums every day to read new posts, but that got time-consuming, especially when there were multiple forums with threads to check. And I wanted to be immediately responsive to "help me" posts.

    I learned a better alternative - to be sure I'm subscribed to each forum.  How?  Set auto-subscribe in your profile, as shown in the screen shot, to "Yes, when I post subscribe me to that forum."  You just have to make sure you post at least one thread to the forum.  (You can always unsubscribe to a specific forum later if you need to.)

    Why subscribe?  Because Moodle sends me an email for every post a student makes to a discussion forum.  The emails have an easily recognizable subject line so I can distinguish these from other emails until I can look at them.  Since students tend to do their work at night, I tend to get this work in a clump first thing in the morning when I open my email account. 

    As I read through I quickly see posts that need action - usually posts outrageously full of sloppy errors. I flag these just like other emails that need to be addressed further.  The rest I read through and delete. I can click on a link in each email that will take me right to the post, which is handy if I'm replying or if I want to see the post in context. I've noticed that images in posts aren't visible in the emails, but I suspect that's a function of my email server.  

    When I see a post that needs action from the student - especially if it contains errors that need correcting.  - I just print the email and hand it right to the student.  This works much better than emailing the student (middle school students don't check their email much), or posting a reply to the post (the student might not return to this post and so won't see it).  Being able to return work for correction in person is one of the advantages of a blended class.  And I have email flags to remind me to follow up if necessary.

    In the past I didn't use the emails for grading, but went back later.  Now I'm working on getting into the habit of grading at the same time.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Explaining Twitter

    So I was with a colleague explaining how I had “met” another colleague via Twitter; we converse all the time, even though we’ve never seen each other face to face.  Blank look.  What’s Twitter again?

    Twitter is a way of expanding your professional network: those colleagues you bounce ideas off, people you get ideas from, people who share interesting articles/lessons/resources/websites.  While I read and comment on blogs, what I was looking for was professional conversation – I found it on Twitter.
    Here is a tiny part of a recent conversation from Twitter, a chat about homework in middle school.  @name is the speaker, #midleved is the hashtag that pulls all these Tweets together.

  • @mthman:   Welcome back to the #midleved chat! I hope you had a good week in the classroom (or of spring break, like me!). Let's talk homework.
  • @mthman:  During the first week(s) of school, what do you tell your students/parents to expect via homework? #midleved
  • @francesblo:  How much time is reasonable for HW? #midleved
  • @cybraryman1:  My daily HW was for students to either read, watch or listen to the major news stories. We would discuss in class next day #midleved
  • @cybraryman1:  Years later a student in college thanked me for having do the current events assignment. He didn’t appreciate it then. #midleved
  • @mthman:  That you account for other teachers in the building also? RT @francesblo: How much time is reasonable for HW? #midleved
  • @rushtheiceberg:   #midleved Homework, in my class, is either extended time to finish classwork, or independent pract/refinement of close to mastered concepts
  • @cybraryman1:  [reply to]  @mthman Good point. You don't want to overburden students #midleved
  • @cybraryman1:  The key is providing HW that is not just busy work. You want them to think #midleved
  • @francesblo:  In my school, daily HW in English, Math, less often other subjects #midleved
  • @brianwyzlic [reply to]@francesblo 30 minutes/day seems about right, but we need to make sure we look cross-curricular, which is tough day-to-day #midleved
  • @mthman:  Do you "grade" HW or merely provide feedback? #midleved
    This went on for an hour, ranging over how much work to assign, busy work, if practice should be done in class or as homework, types of homework for different subjects, should there be homework at all.  It was like sitting around the table with about 20 others who are interested in middle school education – the kind of energizing experience you might get once a year at a conference. 

    Wouldn’t you like to have that kind of experience every week, a couple of times a week, maybe even every day?

    There are side conversations in any chat (partly because people think/pause/write at different rates).  Happily, since Twitter is a print medium, you can go back to read over what others have written to follow all the threads.  And later, you can read the archive (Twitter scrolls down, with the most recent first, so you read the archive from the bottom up.)  Here’s the archive for this discussion:

    Some basic terminology using this recent #midleved chat as an example.  The hashtag # shows this is a topic, and this topic can be followed on Twitter even if you don’t “follow” all the people who are part of that conversation (very useful when you’re starting out).  The conversation goes on all week, and also during the scheduled “chat.”  You can be part of the chat, or lurk (read the tweets during the chat, but don’t say anything), or scroll back through the tweets later, or read through the archive if there is an archive for that particular hashtag’s chats.  There are many education-related chats and hashtags on Twitter, catalogued here by @cybraryman1

    You can set up your free Twitter account and follow conversations from, by using the search function, but it’s much easier to follow the conversations associated with a particular #hashtag by using a tool like (free software you download).  Here, you get your regular Twitter stream (called Friends, the tweets of people you “follow”), any Mentions of your Twitter name (useful so you can respond – and you might miss these as the regular Twitter stream scrolls past), and Direct Messages (sent to you only).  But the real strength is that you can add columns for the #hashtags that interest you.  I find I’m more likely to check the #hashtags than my regular Twitter stream. 

    There are many, many wonderful resources about Twitter on the web.  Here are a few to help you get started.  Because these are conversations you want to be part of. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Raising the bar

    This year I’ve been teaching our high school 1-semester Technology course for the first time (though I’ve taught middle schoolers technology for a decade). 

    One thing has been apparent both semesters – it’s time to raise the bar.  Our technology requirement is seriously out of date; we require students to be able to demonstrate that they can keyboard at a reasonable speed (25 wpm with no errors), and can competently use Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

    Here’s the thing:  students come into class already capable users of Word and PowerPoint, and usually able to pass the typing test without practice.  Only Excel gives them problems. 

But there are so many other critical skills my students need, including:

·    evaluating websites and internet information for validity (a gaping skill deficit here) 
·    evaluating their digital footprints and online safety
·    finding and figuring out how to use free internet tools
·    avoiding plagiarism online
·    collaborating with others using technology.

    If we require that students have technology skills to graduate, shouldn't these skills be included?  I teach all these skills, usually in a cross-disciplinary framework.  But how should I assess them?  Since these aren't part of the formal requirement, my assessments here have been formative - lots of practice and feedback.

    It’s easy to do a summative assessment of whether a student knows how to use Word or Excel; I give them a task and see how well they accomplish it.  Either they’ve shown me they know how to bold text or use a header, or they haven’t.  

    But these newer skills are based on judgment, so inevitably the assessments I use are about judgment.  So how do I assess these skills?   

    Rubrics, here I come.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Shoe on the other foot

    I’m taking an online course myself right now, and I’ve been experiencing technical difficulties.  For example, when I temporarily halted work on a series of exercises, all my earlier work disappeared. Total frustration. Do I have to do all that work again?  Arggh!

    This is helping me remember what it feels like to my students when they can’t get something to work right online.  Most of the time, their problems come because they forgot the format of their userid (is it last name first or last name last?) or forgot their password.  Or both.  This is a problem they can solve – either by persevering, asking a friend, asking me in class, or emailing me.  If they can't login, they can still do the work on paper and hand it in.

    But there have been occasions, especially when I have tried out something new, when things didn’t work out as intended.  Here is the student trying to do the work – and can’t.  And it’s my fault.   This has made me super careful to test new ideas using test-student accounts. 

    Then there’s good old human error; last month I forgot to make a new vocabulary module visible, so students couldn’t work on it.  Oops!

    So I try to be charitable when the technology has done my students dirt.  Either I forgive the assignment (something’s not working) or just extend deadlines.  My students seem to think that’s fair.