Building Assessments in OneNote

In our grade 9 classes we have an alternative approach to final assessments in June.  Rather than exams, the students engage in day-long activities for each subject.  Not quite project-based assessments but somewhat similar; I’m going to call them projects just for convenience.  The science and geography departments have gotten together to develop a joint project that’s going to run all day.  The students will be broken up into small groups and, through research, discussion and planning they’ll come up with a decision on this real-life issue.

The science teacher came to me with the problem: the materials the students produce throughout the day has to be assessed by both their geography and their science teacher. It’s going to include maps, diagrams, pictures, notes, jottings.  Our students work in the free-form OneNote every day so they’re accustomed to being able to just drop in text, ink, audio, video, you-name-it onto a “page” and arrange it as they see fit.  In the past, the teachers have just had the students do things on paper but now that they’re used to the OneNote Binders, the teachers don’t want to have to shuffle paper back and forth between them.
So here’s what we’re going with:  we’re going to provision a OneNote Notebook for the day.  There will be an administrative Section for all the information, forms and instructions the students will need for the day — students can then copy in anything they need to fill out into their own Sections. The student section will be under the student’s control for the day — at the end of the assessment, the teacher will press a button and it will lock down the student’s access.  Essentially, once the teacher presses the button, the student has turned their work in.
In the meantime, the student’s geography and science teacher will both have access to the student’s section.  While the Notebook will actually contain about 150 students, each teacher will only see the 15 students that comprise their class section.  So, the student’s geography teacher will be able to write on the student’s work from the convenience of their own tablet and it will sync through to the student’s science teacher, and vice versa.  And, using Lync, the two can discuss issues of assessment from their offices or homes.  What’s nice is that the Teacher section can include a class-wide collection for all the marks so the two departments will know exactly how the project worked for all the students; all the teachers will sync automatically as they complete their marking.
Now, for folks not using OneNote, you could run something parallel with Google Docs.   There are management issues that are easier to deal with when we’re using OneNote and ActiveDirectory to simplify the permissions arrangement — but where there’s a will 🙂

PD, en masse, for Lync

One of the adaptations to the schedule that began last year at school was the addition of an hour of “meeting time” available every Wednesday morning.  Now, it is often consumed by department meetings, a (incorrectly named) PLN and faculty meetings, I do occasionally get some time to do some large-scale PD.  So far I’ve had two 20 minutes sessions.  To be fair, doing PD in front of the entire faculty is not particularly productive — they are all at different levels in terms of pedagogy and technology that there isn’t a lot of common ground to build on.  And what I’m not all about is wasting their time showing TED talks — they don’t need inspiration; they’re already an extremely motivated group, eager to learn.

This time, I thought I would go over Microsoft Lync.  Now, Lync is not particularly well know; as a form of introduction it’s really similar to Skype or MSN Messenger (and in fact, it’s on the way to being merged with Skype).  It’s deeply integrated into Microsoft Office and our Windows network/OS so it makes sense to try to leverage its use across the school.  Any mention of a user on our system (from email to course webpage to OneNote) has behind it a way to initiate a conversation with that user; it’s part of the ecosystem.  Everything is logged centrally so there’s an aspect of security that’s not true with other messaging systems.

The experience was incredible … there were about 70 faculty members and most of them were enthusiastic participants.  So much so that it was likely overwhelming to the less investigation-oriented.  It was a lot of fun to be sitting on the theatre stage watching them interact with their laptops, comment to their neighbours and at the same time see their communication online.  I couldn’t stop chuckling.  I didn’t lock anything down so they were pushing all the buttons … they were modifying powerpoints, answering polls, chatting, video’ing, you name it.

Some folks want the pedantic “Step 1: do this… Step 2: do that”.  In a large gathering, that’s not practical and it also doesn’t mesh with my beliefs on how students (and in that I include teachers) learn.  Lync was a playground that needed exploring and folks needed a chance to make mistakes and recover from them.  When we’re in smaller groups or 1:1 we can do the “here’s how you do this” but for a short time they just need to splash around in the pool.  When they want to develop a technique, we’ll do that in better conditions.

And did it work?  Well, I had people talking to me about ideas on how to use it in and out of class, with both students and our parents.  And we did  have a snowday on the Friday and I had folks who had never used it Lync’ing me with questions. So long as there a buzz, I’m happy.

Swimming upstream

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorensztajer/4938631169/

Teachers try to be efficient with their use of time; like first responders, teachers are dealing with situations that are often dealt with immediately, in the moment. They want to provide opportunities for students to show their learning, and then provide meaningful feedback, planning and differentiating along the way. Things that get in the way are quickly discarded — by necessity. So that brings me to Sharepoint. Two stumbles arrived today:

1) We’re using a discussion board in one of our courses. Now, to be fair, the students and teachers are learning how to use a discussion board correctly. Some students were writing their reflections in Word and uploading an attachment to the Board. That’s not good board etiquette and its something that’s being discussed. But to make matters worse, Sharepoint’s out-of-the-box discussion board hides the attachment from the viewer: you see a small paperclip icon and then have to click twice to get to the Word document. It appeared to the class that their attachments (and therefore, their homework) wasn’t there.

2) Working with another group, we were trying to develop a way to manage the Fitness Room. Sharepoint’s built-in calendars are excellent and we’ve used them in some innovative ways. But in order to simplify things and remove options that clutter and confuse, you have to triple-click on a tucked away options page. Yes, that’s right; a triple-click. Every environment has its strengths and weaknesses.

Sharepoint is excellent in many respects. Its integration with all of the Microsoft products have really streamlined many of our operations. The combination of OneNote and Sharepoint has been extraordinary! And programming produces some extremely powerful solutions. But it requires considerable background and skill to make things happen. That’s not going to easily happen when teachers’ expertise doesn’t include Microsoft programming.

Knowledge is power

One of my biggest goals this year has been to ensure that people have the information they need, when they need it in the form that they find usable. We’ve made some great steps forward using Excel to re-package a lot of the information held by our Student Information service (and held is the operative word — it’s locked in there quick tightly). Faculty have been able to use the information to involve students and parents more in day-to-day student life, academics and co-curriculars. And they’ve been doing a lot more analysis on formative and summative grades to find patterns, differentiate instruction and improve assessments.

Another big step is redesigning Sharepoint to make certain that information is stored and presented in an organized way. Over the years, Sharepoint has grown in a haphazard way and users haven’t really been made aware of how they can control their experience with the tools built in to it. Admittedly, it’s not the most user-friendly system but with a little support folks have been able to make the experience more agreeable to both them and their students.

We’ve also been fortunate to have an amazing Sharepoint programmer available to us. He’s developed a number of apps for faculty, students and parents that is opening up the School to our community in ways that invite even greater participation. People now know more and more about what’s happening at school, when and how — and immediately who to contact if there’s an issue. And as a marker of our success? A meeting today with our Guidance Department on our new Student Success Portal: “I’m never sure, CA, if you’re joking about what’s possible — until you show us it’s all ready for us to use it.”

Starting the sharing process

The School has been trying to leverage OneNote and its sharing and syncing capabilities ever since OneNote was introduced in 2003 … in a 1:1 tablet computer environment it’s a natural fit for both teachers and students. Each page that is created can hold any kind of digital content and can be inked with as much freedom as a piece of paper. There is an organization that is familiar to those in education — you start at pages, put pages into sections (I always think of those Hilroy separators) and then the sections into notebooks… except being digital there are no limitations (you can include audio, video, PDFs, etc) and the tablet doesn’t increase in weight the more pages you add.

There have been difficulties with OneNote along the way — although OneNote was capable of sharing a notebook between folks (so that more than one person could write on it at a time) and synchronize from a copy stored on a central server (so that you material could be in a central cloud and you would work on a copy) it never seemed to work right. Finally, though we’ve had a year of successful sync & share behind us… it looks like OneNote 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 are a match! It will mean that teachers will have full time access to each student’s work and can provide commentary throughout. When it comes time to assess (either formatively or summatively) the student places it in a drop box, the teacher retrieves it, assesses it and places it in a read-only portfolio. A student’s notebook is stored centrally so there’s no concern should their laptop have a problem — it’s automatically restored when they re-sync. This is one small step towards a more collaborative and more differentiated classroom here at School. Feedback, as always, is welcome! Image Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  gordonr 

It’s not you, it’s me

I had a nice conversation with a colleague here … chatting with teachers in the summer is always fun because everyone is relaxed but at this time there is also the anticipation of getting back into the classroom, so there’s a great energy. He mentioned my new job and said something like “it’s a great opportunity for you to bring your vision in to the classrooms.”

And I had to stop him… because that’s exactly the opposite of what I want to do with this job. Sure, I have a vision of what classrooms should look like — but I’d much rather help teachers bring _their vision_ of what their classroom should look like. There are a multitude of ways to make teaching and learning better (and I’m not going to define what that means at this point) — and if I just march on with what I think is best, it’s not going to initiate any real change in the classroom.
Change has to be personal, individual, differentiated.
It has to come from whatever space the teacher is working in.
 == Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Digitalnative  ==

Allowing for change

When I was interviewing for this position, one of the things I wanted to make clear was that when it comes to teacher-change, I wouldn’t proceed too aggressively until I had dealt with the issue of time-and-space. Teachers at our school are extraordinarily busy; they wear many hats (teacher, coach, club leader, service trip organizer, residence staff … and then they have lives) and tend to be over-scheduled during the school day. Yes we get great holidays but during the time we’re in school, it’s an 8-5:30 day followed by planning and marking overnight, not to mention the evening and weekend responsibilities as part of our academic and co-curricular components. So, if we’re going to ask these folks to think deeply about their practice, we need to find the time by making their present work easier and more efficient. All those situations where they run in to an impediment, when they don’t have the information they need at the time they need it or if they have to repeat a task that could be automated … those are what I’m looking for right now. If I can save 1 minute out of their day, that’s almost three hours over the year that I can than give to them as learning time. My push for maximizing time goes back to an old book: “Every minute counts” So far, I think I’ve saved about 5 minutes per teacher per year — when we do our report cards, some of our students get letter grades rather than numeric (for a variety of reasons). The Academic Head kept a list and posted it every reporting period. Teacher would have to continually check against the list and adjust the report card manually. But the report card system would keep resetting it back to numeric at any mark change or addition — and the teachers would be embarrassed when the number showed up on the report if they didn’t continually check and double-check. No more… the AH’s list is now on the student database and the report system checks against it and replaces the number with the appropriate letter. Frustration lessened and time saved. _There is time to change… but you have to make it._ Image: == Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  emilywjones  ==

Changing directions

(I thought I should squeeze this in given a link from a popular blog, Continuous Everywhere.)
I closed off my teaching this June for a year; in the fall I’ll be returning to life as a PhD student at OISE, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. I’ll be working in the Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development program — two big areas of interest for me. Stay tuned for updates.
I’ll hopefully have considerably more time to write & reflect. The only external responsibilities I’ve kept are the Auxiliary, the ECOO conference in November and PCMI, of course. For me, that’s not a lot. And I’ll be commuting in on the GO train (public transit) so there will be about 90 minutes of downtime each day in which to put pen to paper (electronic, that is).
I’m looking forward to have the time to “think deeply of simple things”. My focus will be on teacher development, an interest developed over my time with the folks at PCMI. It’s so energizing being around these folks — how do we capture the experience at PCMI and make it more accessible to math teachers everywhere, efficiently & effectively?

Made the paper!


Okay, I didn’t quite make it into print… but the electronic version isn’t half-bad. I was working on the waterfront when, during one of those brief-but-violent thunderstorms, a sign fell onto the walkway, narrowly missing a number of pedestrians. So I got to stand in the rain to make sure no one else would get hurt until they managed to get the sign removed and the other reinforced.
Working with the police is a great experience 95% of the time. Even getting soaked in the rain just standing there has a charm of its own although most of the time it’s just helping the public with questions and concerns. Halton is a pretty safe area so we don’t have the problems of major urban centres; most evenings when I’m on duty the computer lists only a few calls through the night. The remaining 5% of the time is both depressing and disappointing — people in serious trouble. But, we’re there to help regardless of the perceptions of those involved. My only regret is that because our shifts are infrequent we don’t get the closure on the situation that the regular officers do.
I always encourage teachers to get involved with their local Auxiliary; their most serious needs parallel our down times so they mesh well. And the skills and knowledge are something we don’t often encountered in teaching. Check it out!

Where is everyone?

While I admit to being quickly on board most things (except the iPad, that is… that’s a tool for my 65-year-old Mom) I’m disheartened by the slow pick up of online learning networks (via Twitter, Ning, Facebook, etc) by my colleagues. We’re a 1:1 school and the faculty are pretty comfortable with technology — but I see very few of them (well, okay, maybe 3 out of 100) that are actively engaged online. Is it really just an issue of time, given that independent school teachers have a very long academic & athletics day followed by the same prep time all teachers require? Are they unaware of the benefits of connecting and collaborating online? Or does that beg the question?