Saturday, April 26, 2014

Reflections from Blended Learning in the Classroom

I've been taking an online course through REMC called Blended Learning in the Classroom. As a part of the required work are a number of reflections and such. I've not been blogging much lately, so I figured I'd share some of these reflections.

Student with Whiteboard

The Prompt: Share at least one reason why creating a collaborative community within the online portion of your learning environment is important.

I may get in trouble here, but I'm going to say that creating a collaborative community within the online portion of my learning environment is not important. In the past I would have agreed that an online community was important, but in going through the beginnings of this module I found my feelings changing. This is due partly to the readings and partly to reflection on my past experiences.

Building an online community of practice has been one of the things I have been struggling with since reading Brown & Adler (2008) 5-6 years ago. The best experience I ever had with this was years ago when I used Ning to create a social network for my physics classes. This was only a partial success at best. Only a small number of students, three out of 90, really joined the community. Those students truly got a lot out of our Ning. My other students would go in only to make the required posts and responses. The next year I had only one student who tried to engage in a meaningful collaborative community online.

While I don't believe there has to be an online collaborative community in a blended class I do believe every course should include a collaborative community. As pointed out by Misanchuk & Anderson (2014) both Vygotsky and Moore and Kearsley highlight to the importance of collaboration between students. Vygotsky contends, "All higher-order functions originate as the relationships among individuals.” While Moore and Kearsley contend that learner to learner interactions are just as important as learner to content or learner to instructor interactions.

There is no real reason why, in a blended environment, that a collaborative community could not be built in the face to face portion of the course rather than the online portion. It is important to create a strong community that fosters collaboration. If this can already be done within the four walls of the classroom why do we need to force it into the online portion of the class?

I think part of the problem I've had in the past relates to the fact that all of my students see each other every day at school. The online community has always been extra. Virtually all of the community building I would like to see happen online is already happening in the face to face portion of my classes, making the online portion a bit superfluous.

There may still be some benefits to shifting community to an online environment, however. It would allow all discussions to be archived, shy students may feel more free to speak up, and all students would be able to have a voice. However, when techniques like Modeling Discourse Management (Desbien, 2002) are employed many of these concerns can be addressed in the traditional classroom removing the need for an online community.


Brown, John Seely, & Richard P. Adler. (2008). “Minds of Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0.” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 43, no. 1 (January/February 2008): 16–32 retrieved from:

Desbien, Dawin. (2002). Retrieved from article.pdf

Misanchuk, Melanie, and Tiffany Anderson. (2014). "Building community in an online learning environment: communication, cooperation and collaboration." Abstract. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. Article.pdf


Friday, January 24, 2014

Do I even need a Laptop Anymore?

A bit of a rambling post for a snow day:

I realized the other day that I almost never carry my laptop to school anymore. It's not particularly outdated, but I usually just leave it plugged in at home. I now treat my laptop the way I used to treat my desktop and I use my iPad the way I used to rely on my laptop. This is kind of funny as I'm often told people don't use iPads to get work done in the real world. I do it all the time, but then maybe being a high school teacher doesn't qualify me as working in the real world.

I've been teaching for 14 years now and until recently I carried a laptop to and from school everyday. This has become unnecessary for me with the advent of cloud services like DropBox and iCloud. If I need something more than my iPad at work I sit at a desktop computer in my classroom. But for the most part I get my work done on my iPad.

I think the lack of iPad use for "Real Work" is less about capability than about comfort. Most people in the workforce today grew up with the traditional keyboard-mouse paradigm. I wonder if we'll see a shift in the next decade as tablet use continues to rise. For me I've gotten so used to working with my iPad that when I sit at a computer I have to be really careful when I type lest I fail to use apostrophes or forget to capitalize the first word in a sentence or personal pronouns.

I would say more than 90% of my current computing needs are met by my iPad and it's hard to justify luging around a laptop for that remaining 10%. A couple years ago I decided I'd never buy a new desktop computer. Now I'm not so sure. When my current MacBook dies I will be very tempted to replace it with a desktop computer with more power and a bigger screen than a comparably priced laptop and rely on a tablet (probably an iPad) for my mobile computing needs.

What does this mean for education? I don't really know. But I get really tired of people telling me we need to teach our kids for the world as it looks today. I simply don't care if most of the world currently uses Microsoft Word. Before the June 2007 most people only carried flip phones and the only smartphones business executives carried were made by Balckberry. Less than seven years later it's almost impossible to buy a phone that isn't a smartphone and almost none of them are Blackberries. We need to focus more on teaching students to be adaptable rather than teach them skills and hope the world doesn't change.

Image Credits: ipad.02.png from

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Walking the Walk - Creating video for students with only an iPad

Next year my school will begin it's 1:1 iPad program. We're starting slow with only the freshman class, so it will take us four years before we're totally 1:1. I've been tasked with helping get teachers ready for the flood of technology headed our way. One of the ways I've been doing this is through iTunes U courses for professional development. One of these is Flipping with an iPad.

I've been making videos to use with my students for years on my computer with Camtasia Mac using a Bluetooth Wacom tablet and Sankore for annotating on the screen. But these take me a while to make. A lot of this time is spent in the set up. I've been urging some teachers to lecture less in class and to use videos as replacements. I know lecture is not the best way to deliver content, but when starting a revolution we have to begin somewhere. So I decided to make a series of videos using only my iPad so I would have a much better idea of what was involved. I'll be adding all of my lessons learned to my iTunes U course. 

I'll call these videos Quickcasts, not because they're short, but because I want to make them quickly. The goal for a 5-10 min video will be no more than 20-30 min from set up to upload. This first one took a bit longer than that, but future ones will go much quicker. I learned a lot getting it together. Here's how I did it.



I used Explain Everything to capture all the video and screen writing. I used the Notier stylus for annotating and drawing. I've tried many styluses and this one works best for me. Over the years I've become more of an audio snob with my videos, so I have to have a microphone. I used the Rode smartLav. This was the first time I used it, so I still have a bit to learn about proper placement and such. My next video should sound better. On a side note, I've also played with the microphone built into my iPhone ear buds, I'm not sure how much better the Rode microphone is.

I also used Explain Everything to create the intro clip. It was too slow so I wanted to speed it up. Unfortunately iMovie on my iPad 2 could only slow down the video, not speed it up. I'm not sure if newer iPads can speed up video or not. So I took the clip into Pinnacle Studio to double the speed. I could have finished the video here, but I wanted to gain some experience with iMovie on my iPad, so I took the clip back to iMovie. All of our teachers already have iPads with iMovie.

The intro music was created in NodeBeat HD. This is a fun little app that I picked up a couple years ago while it was free. Moving audio around on an iPad can be problematic, but I was able to email the file to myself from NodeBeat and then import it to my project in iMovie. I could have used GarageBand to create the intro as well. Then I rendered the video to my camera roll and used YouTube Capture to upload. It is possible to upload directly from iMovie, but I also wanted the saved video file to drop into my iTunes U course anyway.

Next time I will position my microphone differently so the levels won't be too high. The intro clip with music is done so I'll just reuse it again. I may also spend a little more time prepping slides in Explain Everything so the video itself can be shorter. While nice at times, students don't need to watch me write every word on the screen in real time.

Friday, August 02, 2013

A question about 3D printers in education

I was recently asked a question about my 3D printer:

This ended up being very thought provoking on multiple levels and as with all thoughts I have like this I thought I’d share them here.

Through serendipity about a year and a half ago I found I had unspent grant money that needed to be spent. As I’d made a few big rounds of purchasing for my classroom lately I felt I pretty well supplied. So I decided to take my largess and spend it on a Makerbot Replicator. I entered into this technology purchase in the worst possible way. Here was a big tech purchase and I really had no specific educational outcomes in mind and yet with a tool with the promise of this one I feel no regrets on that score.

So, back to the question. What resources do I wish I’d had? I wasn’t quite sure what Matt meant and I’ve decided to not ask for clarification on this question, but to answer it a few different ways. A few of these wishes have since been met, I’ll point out the resources where appropriate. I’ll also add in the resources I’m glad I had.

What resources do I wish I had before I purchased my 3D printer? 
I wished I had a good breakdown of all the entry level 3D Printers available on the market created by a third party (that is to say, not marketing material for any one printer). Personally I spent a lot of time on the internet searching before finally settling on Makerbot. Now, of course, there is the Make: Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing and they’re now working on an update to this guide. I’d add that I’d like to see one of these done by educators to see what they’d predict they’d see in a school environment with the different machines. This team should include some dedicated industrial ed teachers as well as core content teachers who might use 3D printed objects in their curricula.

Another thing I would like to see is some sort of article or set of articles that could be used to justify the expense of such a machine in the classroom. These could be used to help sway a school’s administration into investing in such a device. Inspired by the question I will try to create such an article in a future post.

Now, once I had my printer what resources do I wish I had?
First on this list would be easy to use software to run my 3D printer. For those not familiar with 3D printers, you need a piece of software that will take the 3D model file to create the tool paths for the machine to follow. This one has been solved for the Makerbot with Makerware. I’m not sure if Makerware will work with other 3D printers or not. Makerware offers very easy default options, but also gives the more advanced user more control. These advanced features are mostly hidden from novice users which really is a good idea. With the advent of Makerware my Makerbot became much easier to use and more versitile.

Next on this list would be an easy to use CAD program. I teach physics and electronics with micro-controllers. Neither of which have much time built in that could be used to teach CAD (even Sketchup). This problem has also been solved for me in a couple of ways. The first of these is a service called TinkerCad. TinkerCad runs in the cloud and requires no software install (always a bonus in schools). It allows you to easily create 3D models and export them as *.stl files ready for printing. Note, there are actually lots of options now. TinkerCad is my favorite though.

Another option that occurred to me last year was OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD allows you to create 3D models programatically. This is not something I plan to teach to my physics students, however. The power here is that like any program you have variables. So you can create or find a good model and then let students explore how changing variables can change the underlying model. My students were able to investigate how changing the parameters of a wind turbine affected the output voltage while possessing no 3D modeling skills. We created and tested 20 different designs. The designs were all created in only two class periods, one each for my two sections.

I would also have liked more nuts and bolts advice and knowledge on operating my printer and the problems I might encounter. To some degree it really is impossible to put together a resource that covers all the potential pitfalls, but I had to fumble around quite a bit. The biggest issue I had to overcome was the warping of parts. This happens for particularly large parts as they cool. The can pull away from the build platform and distort the part or even come loose ruining the print run. The “Helper Discs” that appeared in the example menu in Makerware have helped me immensely with this problem. While there is some overlap, the needs of a Maker are often much different than the needs of a teacher.

The final thing I wished I had when I got my 3D printer was a good idea of how to leverage the power of this device to enhance my teaching. I know it’s a bit ironic, this is exactly what I said I didn’t have and didn’t really care about when I started this post. What I’m still looking for are really cool design projects I can use with my students to tie together what we’re learning with real world applications and critical thinking. To some degree this has been solved a bit with the Makerbot Curriculum page, but I’m still not satisfied here. Now that I've discovered the power of OpenSCAD, a whole range of potential projects has become available as well.

Bottom Line?
Some of the things I wished I had are now available but a few are still lacking and might never really exist:

  • Breakdown of best 3D printer in an educational environment. Ideally created by educators (and their students)
  • Articles to be used to support an educator in the purchase of a 3D printer.
  • Cool design project ideas to be used in conjunction with core content classes.
  • Nuts and Bolts guide for teachers on how to use and trouble shoot problems.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Re-thinking Professional Development

Photo by Sean MacEntee CC-BY
How do you train a teaching staff in the use of iPads in teaching? Or better yet, how do you help a staff see how their teaching can be transformed from a traditional model of instruction to one that leverages the power of technology to place the student at the center of the learning? We've begun investigating the move to a 1:1 iPad program at Divine Child High School. For those in our community who may have found this post we're looking at starting with only the freshmen in 2014.  So, we won't be fully 1:1 for a number of years yet. I've been asked to head up the whole program. My immediate goal is to make sure we have everything in place to ensure things go smoothly when the first class of iPads arrive in 2014.

Why wait so long? Why not start this fall? Inertia, it takes time to change practice. I want to get the staff development piece right. Step one, all of our teachers will have an iPad in their hands before they go home for the summer. Familiarity will go a long way I know, but where do I go from there? My assistant principal keeps asking me how many PD days I need next year. I really don't want to try working with a room full of 60 people at a time. That's a recipe for disaster.

My current plan, assuming I can get our administration on board, is to flip our PD and faculty meetings. I saw an awesome talk at MACUL this year by +Fred Sitkins and +Rebecca Wildman. They outlined how they've transformed professional development in their school. I'm planning on stealing all their ideas. You can find out all about what they've done on their site or in their iTunes U Course. I highly recommend checking them both out! You should also follow Fred (@fsitkins) and Rebecca (@rebeccawildman) on twitter.

In a nut shell they've gotten rid of traditional faculty meetings. Staff are expected to replace that time commitment with time spent working with their PLNs. Stuff that would be in a normal faculty meeting is delivered via video and teachers watch when they have time. PLNs find times to meet that are convenient and may be face to face or online in the evening. One member of each PLN reports out each month to the school improvement committee on the progress of the PLN. This is self directed professional development that is fully differentiated to meet the learner (i.e. the teachers) where they are!

The best part of this whole model is it is exactly what we keep saying our classrooms should look like. Not only could this be a more effective way of doing PD, it also models good teaching strategies to use with our students. The other thing I like about this model is it is rooted in professionalism and trust. It will only work if the teachers involved act like professionals and the administration trusts teachers to do their jobs. In the traditional model we try to ensure participation by requiring seat time in meetings. The problem with this is seat time does not equal participation. Compliance is not the same thing as engagement. It often looks professional, but that doesn't mean it is.

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be sketching out my plan on how to implement this form of PD. I'll try to share my thoughts here as I move forward.