Pretend you’re a teenager

A picture à propos of nothing,
except perhaps the recognition of
the dying days of a teacher’s summer vacation

One of the major aspects of my job (and admittedly, one of my favourites) is finding ways to smooth out wrinkles in our systems.  To find efficiencies.  To save time.  It’s mathematical, really … if I can save 2 minutes off a teacher’s day, in a staff of 100 that’s 3 hours of time that can be better spent.

We’ve made a lot of progress during the 2012-2013 but, to use a phrase I hate, we hit a lot of the low-hanging fruit.  The easy things.  We centralized and synchronized the OneNote Binders (okay, that was huge), the Faculty Calendar and the Duty Calendars so that they were done once and everyone could access and modify as necessary. We simplified the way teachers access and use information produced from the school’s student information system, removing a tonne of roadblocks. We moved PD online and made it instantaneous.  There have been a multitude of shared databases (and shared OneNotes) that have made information accessible and usable to people who need it.  And there has been a normalization of standards, policies and procedures — people never knew why we did things or why we named things in particular ways so we thought deeply of why things were the way they were.  There’s a lot more finessing going forward and the payback won’t be as noticeable (we were making some leaps worth 10-30-50 minutes per staff member last year).  We’re going to have to push a little.

So in an interchange with a faculty member I got this back:

I am happy with whatever you think is best

And I immediately responded with

LOL… no, no, no… you need to say “I want THIS… and THAT … and NOT THAT”
Pretend you’re a teenager!

Far too many times our faculty accept inefficiencies or irritants because they don’t think they can affect change. (To be fair, in the past, that was often the case … it was hard to get your voice heard.)  Or they don’t know there’s maybe a better or easier way. So my goal this year is to make my faculty like teenagers.  I want them to think they can change the world, like nothing can stop them.  Because they can.  And nothing can.

Getting Parents into the Mix : OneNote opens the door

Last year’s introduction of shared OneNote Binders to our school really provided more fluid communication between teacher and student — because there was anytime, anywhere, “any media” access to all of the student and teacher notes there is now a continual flow of contents and comments back and forth.  It’s really starting to reshape assessment for & as learning.

We had wanted the parents in the mix from the beginning but in order for the parents to see the inking done by the student and teacher, they had to have the OneNote program installed on their system.  Now, many of them likely do (and don’t know it) but there is a minority running Macs and other parents want to be able to check on things from their offices where they may not have OneNote.  The 2010 OneNote web app didn’t allow for seeing ink so was essentially useless.  Since one of the major leaps forward with tablet pcs is that students and teachers are not limited in the means by which they work with information free-form inking is the most common way to put thoughts down on OneNote.  They aren’t dependent on a keyboard or a single app;OneNote is an open space without limitations.  So, we ended up not really rolling it out to parents system-wide; in special cases we worked with parents who had OneNote at home just to ensure the system would work.

Over the summer we upgraded to the 2013 web app — which shows ink!  It doesn’t allow folks to edit ink content while on the web but our OneNote Binders don’t allow parents to edit teacher or student content so this isn’t a concern.  But now any parent using a modern browser can access their student’s class notes — which includes their assignment portfolio for each course for the entire year — and see the teacher’s content, assignments and planning.

I’d give my right _A_R_M to assess better

We had a really successful year last year when we rolled out the OneNote Binders … and now we’ve responded to some of the feedback as we prepare to provide this year’s version.

Students have become accustomed to using the Assignments Section to submit their work; it’s the Section that forms their assignment dropbox for the course.  In order to minimize the horizontal space used by the tab’s names, we’ve renamed Assignments as _A with the underscore character to keep it alphabetically at the far left.

We’ve done the same thing with the former Assessed Section — it’s been renamed _R.  The Assessed (or now, _Returned) section is the read-only space for students and parents to see their marked work — they can see all the Pages of content that are placed in this section by the teacher but can’t edit it.  They can, of course, copy it back out to their sections and make changes and resubmit it to the Assignments section.

And the big change this year is the addition of the _Marking section … inside of each student’s Section Group there is a Section that is hidden to the students– when the student places their assignment in the _A Section, the teacher can drag it into this hidden section and take their time marking it, perhaps doing half of it on Thursday and the rest on Friday.  When done with their marking, the teacher can move it into the _Returned section for the student and parents to see.
One of our goals with automation is to make _Assignments a true dropbox; when the student puts something into that section OneNote will automatically move it to the hidden _Marking section, capturing the time of submission.  Right now, the teacher’s time-of-pickup becomes the student’s time-of-submission — and some teachers are very particular about deadlines.

On the internet, personne ne sait que tu es un chien!

I have the incredible good fortune to watch a French teacher work over the next month.  She’s taken on the responsibility for a Grade 10 French summer course for students.  The challenge is that she is teaching it online to students here in Canada and overseas, specifically China and Pakistan.  They are all existing students in our school that are trying to get ahead in our French program — that’s important because they are already familiar with the technology commonly used in our school.  While many school leverage the learning management system, the OneNote Binder has given her a way to not only structure her content but closely observe and provide feedback on every student’s work from minute to minute.

She is using Lync as her communication medium; this has been our one technological learning curve but both she and the students have been learning fast.  Lync is one of Microsoft’s products so it is closely integrated into our email, Sharepoint and network.  It’s also obviously been affected by Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype — the audio is very good and there is a fluidness with with both the teacher and students can screenshare, take control of other screens and also engage in video conferencing.  The latter is important when dealing with language; you want to see the person talking!

Lync also has a built in recorder.  When the teacher starts her daily session, she can click on the record button and a video is made of all the interactions online; who said what, who typed what and what was shared across the computers.  Beyond just the security issue (because that always lies in the background administratively) the pedagogical opportunities are considerable.  Students can go back and review the class; the teacher can reflect on how she dealt with questions, what should and shouldn’t have been shown, how the sharing process can be made better.  (It’s a great precursor for our video-enabled classroom, where “regular” classroom teaching will go under the same observational process for teacher reflection.)

As I said, I’m very fortunate to be involved — the teacher is remarkably well prepared.  Her OneNote Binders are constructed in such a way to make it easy for a student that is not physically present to understand how to work through and she has nicely balanced text, images, audio & video.  Her online sessions recognize the need for ever-changing focus to keep participants active and she continually adapts to the students and also the occasional technological challenge that inevitably arises.

Her (and my) only challenge is the issue of authenticity.  How do we know the student is doing the work by themselves, unaided?  Their summative assessments will be written here at the school (which is why the course starts in August and end in the early part of September, once school is back) but all the formative work — how do we know that we’re responding to the student’s actual needs, and not the needs of a tutor or, god forbid, Google Translate?  She is using a lot of audio and video on both sides to try to provide some level of authenticity but it’s not up to the level we have come to expect in the F2F classroom.

*Yes, I am kicking myself that I did not go through with a research study on this; she’s absolutely fascinating to watch.  But the UofT process is just so onerous I’ll wait until I’m out from under their Byzantine thumb.

Calendars, the first five of two

As we continue to prepare for the coming academic year (we don’t start classes until the week after Labour Day) I’ve begun to prepare the data for the Faculty.

One of the introductions last year was the “Duty Calendar” — who does residential duty each night, both faculty and prefects (student leaders).  In the past, it was stored in five different spreadsheets, one for each house and then one for the entire campus (since on weekends, faculty members are assigned to the campus rather than specific houses during the day Saturday & Sunday).  No one from other houses knew who was doing duty in any other house and if swaps were made, folks were never really sure that the change had been made.  Now, although the data starts out on a spreadsheet (I configure a spreadsheet for the House Directors) it is then copy-and-pasted into a Sharepoint Calendar.  3 clicks and 2 key-presses for each spreadsheet and the information is available to all.

To be precise, it is pasted into five calendars, one for each house and one for the campus and then they are merged (using Sharepoint’s Calendar Overlay) into one calendar. This has made the information visible to people that need it but also available to other applications on our system.  Faculty can now see who is on duty in each house and this information is fed into our weekly (printed) residential duty sheets.  Any changes are automatically updated and reflected on the calendars.  And, like all the other Sharepoint calendars, the House Directors can link their house’s calendar into their own Outlook calendar so they know who is on duty each day without having to visit Sharepoint.

[Since I’m beginning a new academic year, and a new job, I’m re-starting blogging today, August 1st, and do my best to reflect, or at least comment on, something I’ve encountered each day.]

Presentations R Me

I mentioned it in yesterday’s blog post and realized I hadn’t discussed it before. I had done a presentation on line with Lync and although Lync does do recordings, the presentation was pretty dynamic with questions coming from the participants.  In order to make the presentation efficient for folks who couldn’t attend, I used Present.Me to not only show the slides but also show me as I discussed the content.
Well, it turned out that Present.Me was a big hit amongst the faculty (not like that wasn’t my ulterior motive, eh?)  The Physical Education department used it in the Middle School for the student presentations on health topics almost immediately.
I’ve found this introduction-by-stealth to be the best way of providing faculty with new ways of looking at information.  Giving them a link or even doing a video on a new application really does work… not surprisingly (thank you Dewey) actually showing them how it works in a context pushes their thinking and doing.  And it is fun on my end to mix content and process together.


I have a rule that I don’t focus too much on editing my audio/video … if I make my content “perfect” it sets the bar way too high for teachers who are already busy. These are for internal use, so they can be rougher than what I would put out in my classroom or for publication.

Improving the message

Our Guidance Department hold a series of information nights throughout the year and the most recent one was on our School’s curriculum.  We do follow the provincial (i.e. government) curriculum so that our students leave with the expected high school diploma.  However, we have our own diploma with its own requirements — we ask for more service learning (25 hours a year), more languages, more math, etc.  

Not every parent can attend these information evenings and so the Guidance Department asked me to put the information up on line.  They wanted more than just the Powerpoint because that only provides a structure upon which they build their presentation.  Normally, I’d encourage them to use Present.me but they didn’t want to have a particular “face” associated with the content — they really only wanted a voice over for the Powerpoint.  They wanted a screencast.  
With that decision made, we talked a good deal about the screencast itself.  The original conversation was that they would just record the entire evening’s presentation and take that audio.  But of course, putting up 45 minutes of Powerpoint will produce something no one will ever sit through.  So we finally worked our way down to 5 minutes as a way of getting the information that people need and that they would actually watch.  
That also just happens to be the maximum recording length on Jing.  I admit to being a Jing advocate. It and Evernote are the only teaching applications I feel are worth paying for the premium versions — although the free versions are powerful enough for most people.  
We sat down and did a few examples, recording ourselves in Powerpoint.  We used the editing screen rather than presentation mode so that they could see the slides that were coming up and prepare their thoughts.
We also talked about using the PAUSE button so they could change slides, click PAUSE, think about what they were going to say and then continue the recording.  
When you only have five minutes you really have to think about your message.  It makes your presentation more focused, more informative and more likely to be heard & seen.

It’s not you, it’s me (iPad edition)

I always hesitate to discuss this issue publicly because I know I’m coming from a place of privilege.  We had Apple in for a meeting last week and they were, of course, trying to sell us on the iPad — but it would be a step backwards for me.  I’ve been teaching at laptop/tablet computer schools for 15 years now.  We skipped over the transition-space that people are now in with their 1:1 iPad programs mostly because compressed technology like that didn’t exist at the time.

The iPad is not the be-all-and-end-all of education technology and it is slightly discouraging that high school folks are not moving to more accommodating technologies even though the cost is greater.  The principal issue is that iPads are very limiting to both the teacher and the student.  They do not do construction well — just compare writing anything of any length with an iPad versus Word on a tablet computer.  Contrast the expansive but integrated and organized nature of OneNote on a tablet PC with any app on the iPad; it is too difficult to bring together material of different types and formats into one document-space and then work on it to put together something meaningful.

That’s not to say that what people are doing with their iPads isn’t amazing. You use the tool you have, and you use it to the utmost.  But, they are not the solution to issues in pedagogy to technology in high schools.  They’re a stepping stone, and a small one at that.  For many schools, limited by budgets and policies, iPads form that intermediary step.  They will eventually move towards a more sophisticated tablet environment.  I would say objects like the Microsoft Surface are likely the next step for schools not already invested in iPads.

Curiously, our next step is to likely marry our next tablet computer with a second, smaller device.  The tablet computer is the construction space… the smaller device is the consumption.

My ultimate dream, of course, is that the construction space becomes more fluid.  Say, any surface (wall, table) within the classroom become the construction space with the student merely logging on to that surface — and they still carry a device that allows them consumption and simple construction.  But that’s likely five years away.

Documenting our Action Research

Our school has our teachers choose a working group that meets every third week of the school year; they choose a topic to look at and then work through a discussion, research and perhaps reach a project.  I had the opportunity to work through with a group today looking at how teacher reflection can promote and strengthen pedagogical change.

Although we use OneNote in our classrooms, I encourage teachers when they’re looking at collecting research and tracking progress to consider Evernote.  For one, it separates the information flow that surrounds the classroom in OneNote from the personal & professional space that things like this research project comprises.  Second, Evernote is an all-around excellent tool for capturing information especially in a case like this where the teachers want to capture instances where students have said or done something that indicates their pedagogical change has had an effect or been noticed.

Your Evernote account has an email address (say, something like carmstrong2134@evernote.com … no, that’s not mine) that makes a note from anything that is sent to it.  So, if a student amkes a comment, the teacher can use their smartphone to quickly email the comment to Evernote; it’s logged in and stored away for later reflection and discussion.  Once the student comment is stored in a note in Evernote, you can add comments, attachments (say, the assignment the student was working on), pictures, links, etc.  It’s remarkably flexible.

You can also email photos, audio captures and video to Evernote and annotate them with both text and ink … handy when you have a tablet computer and a convenient pen!  And everything is automatically synced from your computer to your smartphone and to the web.  Incredibly handy when you’re travelling.  Folks often compare it to Dropbox… my suggestion is that you consider Dropbox as your working space and when the documents are done and ready to be shared, stored or filed away well, that’s what Evernote is for — it’s your own reservoir, your Wikipedia, your Google (since everything text-based is indexed and searchable).

And lastly… I am a big fan of the easy way you can quickly share a note with anyone else.  Two clicks and boom, you have a link to the note to send, tweet or post on Facebook.  So I use the Evernote web clipper to make a note from a webpage covering Seymour Papert … and now I can share it back with a link.

Moving forward with Sharepoint & Word

Well, I’ve nudged some middle managers forward.

While OneNote is the major collaborative space that we use here at School, it’s not the most comfortable working environment for folks groomed on Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

We have in the past used GoogleDocs for the collaborative building of projects but many people are uncomfortable with the simultaneity of editing.  The regular Microsoft Office programs do allow for asyncrhonous sharing of documents when tied with Sharepoint.  
So I passed on the following bit of knowledge to a few of our managers who are working on a couple of projects:
  1. Go to a Document Library on one of your Sharepoint Sites
  2. In the Documents ribbon at the top of the screen you have a New Document button.  It comes with Word and we can add Excel, Powerpoint and other common programs.  Let’s say we click on Word…
  3. It opens up Word on the tablet and you can write your document. When you finally hit Save (or Exit) you are encouraged to save it in the Document Library on Sharepoint that you started this process in.  So you save it there.
  4. Now, when users see the document, they click on it and it opens up in the Web version of Word, ready to be edited.  Now, the web app is great for the vast majority of editing that most folks do on a day-to-day basis.  Users also have the option of opening it in Word on their tablets but I’m hoping that we can get people comfortable with doing their editing in the browser.

My hope is that by encouraging this we’ll start to reduce the number of emails that include attachments.  Documents can be stored in Document Libraries and when people want to make changes instead of emailing new copies around, they can just make their changes online.

We’ll see!