Mostly Technology

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On a previous post here at SEE, Aaron Bieniek posted a great series of questions:

“How do you know if the work you are seeing on the blogs actually reflects what that student knows? How do you know the ideas expressed there are not borrowed from someone else? The implication is that unless a student works alone in a controlled “testing” environment – we can’t be sure what that student knows on his/her own. How would you answer that? How much of a role do typical tests play under your system?”

Here are a few thoughts on these questions:

 

How does any teacher know that a student completed their assessments on their own?

passingnotes

I got interested in having students blog, in part, because I wanted to get away from the piles of worksheets and study guides that I used to assign. I found that with many students, the worksheets (when scored for points in the gradebook) became things to do, and not tools for learning. Many students would copy from their friends and neighbors and the determination of individual learning was difficult without other assessments like tests and quizzes. Nevertheless, I still hear of many teachers who collect homework or other daily assignments and enter those “grades” into the point total for students’ final grade as if they were measurements of individual learning. Maybe they are, maybe not. This issue of “ownership” of learning is not unique to blogs or other online forms of assessment.

 

Aren’t the ideas in a student’s blog post borrowed from someone else?

Yep. Everything is a remix. We should encourage students to take what is known about a topic and remix it in a way that is their own. However, we do want to make sure that students are doing their own work. I try to assign assessments that can be completed using multiple creative tools that allow students to show what they know in a unique way. If everyone is filling in the same GoogleDoc worksheet (which I still do, for some entry level activities) then its less clear who was doing the work. Make those assignments worth less, if you score them at all. If, on the other hand, a student creates a video or other quality online artifact explaining a topic or tackling a problem, then usually you’ve got a pretty good idea of their understanding of that topic. And, more importantly, your discussions with the student as they are producing that complex learning artifact will clue you in as to their level of understanding. Surely we don’t expect novice learners to synthesize brand new complex ideas that no one has ever thought of before? Its a remix of reasonably correct ideas and a demonstration of engagement with a topic that we’re aiming for in our blogs.

 

Since student blogs and portfolios are online, isn’t it easier to copy from another student or other sources?

Maybe, but its also easier to detect plagiarism online. In the same way that a kid can copy/paste from someone else’s work, a teacher can copy/paste a student’s work right back into Google or another plagiarism checker and see if it is their own work. Also, as mentioned above, as an active participant in creating these learning artifacts, the teacher knows which students are engaging the material on their own and who is waiting until the last minute to borrow work from someone else. When in doubt check the blog post dates. Since they have a date and time stamp, blogs have an advantage over paper copies in that the student who posts an assignment to their blog first wins the originality argument in cases of student to student copying. My (thankfully few) students who insist on copying often have several blog posts appear on the same day, usually right before a major deadline or marking period. Painfully obvious. I simply send them a note to remove the offending blog posts and have them redo the assignment(s) on their own.

 

What about traditional forms of testing? Aren’t tests the best way to measure individual students?

It depends on what you are trying to measure. Tests and quizzes are fine for assessing specific content knowledge facts. I still use them to some extent in all of my classes. I found, however, that I often want to make tests that consist of mostly essay questions because I am increasingly convinced that my multiple choice tests were missing a large part of the story of what my students had actually learned. If a student gets a question wrong on a MC test, it doesn’t tell me anything about why they got it wrong or what they did actually know about the topic. I can’t give partial credit for understanding on a MC question. Therefore, logically, if you find yourself giving lots of essay tests, blogs are an obvious outgrowth of that philosophy because you are having students continually write about what they are learning. This is especially true in the more narrative science courses like biology and anatomy. The more math-intensive subjects like chemistry and physics should have more tests since a student has to show their work (and therefore their thought processes) for full credit. Plus, problem solving (math) is way easier to work out on paper compared to a blog post.

 

Why do we want to be sure what a student knows on their own?

I’ll argue that its the second half of that question that matters: on their own. Students do need to understand some basic concepts in order to be able to operate in the more complex and creative areas of my class, I get that. What I want to see, though, is a rich classroom and assessment environment in which students are not on their own but are instead supported in their learning and creating by their peers and by the teacher. I worked in academic science labs long enough to know that real science is done in groups where the experts in an area or a technique will teach others their specialty because of a love of teaching and learning. I would far rather try to figure out what students have learned in a group because that models real life and real scientific exploration.

I do use tests and quizzes, but only rarely, and often as practice or quick check-in quizzes. However, in my best moments, assessment of student learning comes from seeing what they can do in a lab situation or what they can create to show mastery of a topic. Will I be able to be 100% sure of what each student knows? Of course not. I bet no one else can get inside a student’s head either. But by using student blogs and student-curated portfolios of learning, I can see what kind of tasks they attempted as part of my class, what they believe they have learned, and I can attempt to judge their level of performance on those tasks by looking at both the artifact they produced and their reflection on their performance.

Moving away from tests is a conscious choice. I don’t use tests very often, not because they are useless, but because they can’t recreate the kind of performance tasks that I want students to be able to do.

 

-for another take on the role of tests see Joe Bower’s post “How will I know what my students know if I don’t test them?

 

SMACKDOWN: a confrontation between rivals or competitors

I try not to take sides in student disputes, which is why I’ll let you, dear reader, help sort out this situation:

Two of my best student bloggers have starteBoxing matchd getting scrappy with each other in class about how many blog views they have. These students have been with me for a couple years now and both have blogs related to biology, anatomy, and AP Biology courses. Their blogs seem to attract a fair bit of traffic around certain science topics at certain times of the year, so we assume that other students across the country (and world) are looking at their stuff. They’ve been arguing lately about who has the better blog and I, of course, have stated that they both have equally excellent blogs, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. They, of course, don’t want to hear that from me and want a winner declared (all in good fun and the spirit of collaboration).

Here’s where you come in. I’ll post links to their blogs and you can go see for yourself the great work they’ve been doing. You can even leave them some comments if you feel so inspired. At the very least you can “vote” with your views as to who might have the better blog. Be sure to click on individual blog posts that you feel are the best they’ve done. That’ll give them some feedback even if you don’t want to write a comment.

Ready? Here we go:

Mandi’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog, and her Biology blog

Steven’s Anatomy Blog, AP Biology Blog and his Biology blog

I’ll have them report how it turns out and I’ll get back to you with the results soon.

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Three years ago, a blogging n00b started writing about a few random ideas regarding his science classes. Yep, that’d be me. I’d like to think that I’ve improved my teaching during those three years. I’ve certainly changed how my class operates, for better or worse. My top five most-viewed posts give a pretty good idea of what has changed about my classroom over the last three years:  implementing AirServer, standards-based grading, online student portfolios, 1:1 iPads, and BlueHarvestFeedback. Basically, I’ve ditched paper, abandoned worksheets and exams, embraced online portfolios, and tried to turn over control of learning to my students.

With all these topics popping up on my blog, I’m not sure whether I’m an edtech blogger, a SBG/SBAR blogger, or whether I even deserve the title “blogger.” I break most of the rules for being really good at any of those. I don’t sit around reviewing the newest tech goodies and apps or trends in “educational technology.” I have my days where I want to rail against standards and SBG (more about that in a bit). And I certainly don’t write blog posts with the frequency associated with anyone who labels themselves a “blogger.”

So what is this online space that I’ve created? Who cares! Its mine. And yours too, if you’ve been reading my notes and/or leaving comments. Thanks, and keep on reading!

I normally would automatically vote for Edmodo in a “best-of” web tools list, or maybe Prezi or Evernote, but lots of other people have written about these, and they have become uber-popular the last year or so and most educators have at least heard of them. Chances are that you use them, or at least have tried them once or twice.

My vote for a much more transformative tool goes to BlueHarvest, brainchild of Vic and Shawn over at ThinkThankThunk Industries.  And before you open another tab and search for BlueHarvest, here’s the link: http://main.blueharvestfeedback.com. If you jumped the gun and did the search already, you’ll find what my students did at the beginning of the semester: Star Wars references. Actually, even if you did click on the link, you’ll still find Star Wars references. Shawn’s kind of a fanboy, apparently. Regardless of his fanboy status, he and Vic put their collective nerd powers to work to create a very powerful service for communicating about learning with students and parents.

Since you likely haven’t seen BlueHarvest before, I’ll play tour guide here for a bit, from a teacher’s point of view. I’m going to skip the initial sign-up process which you can figure out for yourself. Its free to try, and apparently free for the first year and some dinky yearly charge after that. They’re not doing this for the money.

Groups and Standards

The first thing you’ll want to do is create groups either by course or by class period (My Students > Modify Groups). I found it easier to make groups by course topic so I currently use the groups Anatomy, AP Biology, Biology, and Chemistry. You’ll then want to enter your standards for each course (My Curriculum > Add/Modify Standards). These are the essential questions or targets that you want each student to be able to do by the end of that particular course. Creating these, of course, is the hard part. Entering them into BlueHarvest is easy. There’s even a mass-upload option, although I didn’t use that.

You’ll want to assign standards to each group so that when you add a student to the group (course), they automatically get that course’s set of standards. The easiest way that I found to do this was to go through My Students > Modify Groups.

When you are done entering standards and assigning them to groups, you should have a setup that looks something like this:

Some science process standards in BH

Science process standards in BlueHarvest

Tip: When creating standards, I found it better to create different standards for each course, even if some of the standards are the same between your courses. That way if you have a student that takes several classes from you, BH can keep track of that student’s performance separately for each class. For example, a student that takes both biology and chemistry from me has both Lab Skills (BioStd3) and Lab Skills (ChemStd3) assigned to them since they are going to be learning very different lab skills in the two courses.

Add Students

The next task in getting BH ready for use is adding in your students. This is accomplished either one at a time or using mass upload from spreadsheet or Powerschool files (My Students>Add/Modify Students). The big benefit of setting up groups first is that adding students to the right course is easy, just select which group they belong to as you set up each account.

Tip: BH can share students between teachers if more than one teacher in a school is using BH. If you are sharing students between two or more teachers, only have one of the teachers input the students into BH. I share several students with our Spanish teacher and at first we both input all of our students. This led to some of the students getting two different sets of login information, one for each class. Its best to only create one account for each student and then use the My Curriculum>Share window to pass those students on to the other teacher(s).

At this point you’ll have lots of student accounts in place and they should even be populated with your course standards. Student passwords are auto-generated by BH, although they can change them later. Most of my students didn’t change passwords, the auto-generated ones are too cool. I used Edmodo to share account names and passwords, but if you can get your kids’ emails in to the system (I didn’t) BH can send login info out.

Providing Feedback

Once you get past the setup phase you now have a way to write specific feedback to students about products that they create for your classes. When you select a student, a list of standards that that student is trying to meet will appear. You can click on one of these to open a dialog box like so:

From the screenshot you can see that you can add text, links, and even audio and video feedback. I’ll admit I haven’t used the audio and video much, but I’ll get there soon. You can leave a numerical score if you like, but I often don’t. Once you click “Leave Comment” the feedback is posted and both you and the student will receive a notification that there is a new comment ready on BlueHarvest. BH supports both email and text (SMS) notifications.

After you’ve done this enough and your kids have gotten the hang of it, some of the discussions start to look like this:

 

feedbackinBHmembranes

Part of a discussion with a student (name hidden) who is learning about cell membranes 

 

Once students have had chances to master several different standards, each with a conversation happening about it like the one above, a glance at their standards lets you know about where they stand, especially if you have chosen to use the option to mark some standards proficient, as in this example:

A list of all standards for a student

A list of all standards for a student

These features are great for keeping track of what a single student is doing, but BlueHarvest also has the ability to let you view the activity of all students in BH at once in the form of proficient, recent activity, and convo length reports (in Analytics). Here’s an example recent activity graph where each row is a different student (names hidden) and the brightness of the red color represents how recently any comments have been posted:

Recent Activity Report

Recent Activity Report

This graph reflects the fact that the second student recently asked me to review her online portfolio so there are new comments on several standards. You can also tell from this graph that I need to check in with the last two students on the report since there was a black row almost all the way across which usually means they aren’t producing anything for me to comment on.

These are the main features of BlueHarvest that students and I are using. There’s a lot more it can do that I haven’t touched on, such as numerical grades, which it can track too if that’s your way of operating.

While it might seem to some like just more work and another grade book to keep track of and update, in my experience, this is the grade book that matters most and it really is pretty easy to maintain. But then again, this is coming from a teacher who was managing student comments and grades in 120+ individual spreadsheets last year.

The Point: If you are interested at all in making learning targets or standards the focus of your class, BlueHarvest lets you keep track of student progress towards those standards and streamlines the process of providing timely feedback to students. This sort of tool can be transformative for your classroom if you can train yourself and your students to rely less on number scores and more on detailed, actionable feedback when discussing how much they’ve learned.

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Almost every tech blogger I run across publishes some sort of Top Ten list of iOS apps at some point in their blog. Not to be outdone, I present my own list here, but whether it has ten apps and whether it manages to sell stuff to anyone remains to be seen. With any luck this post will let you see how we’re using iPads as creative devices, not as content delivery devices.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may remember that at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year I managed to get around 40 iPad 2′s for my students to use. These were given out primarily to my Anatomy students but some found their way into Physics students’ hands as well. If you’re interested in some notes on the deployment check here.

The deployment this year was similar, but was aided greatly by the addition of a Mac Mini as a sync station that students can use to update the apps on their iPads (Last year I had a dedicated local user account on my own Mac laptop to manage the iPads and, well, that sucked).

On to the apps! Here are some apps that we use and some sample learning artifacts from students that should give you a sense of how we are actually using the iPads:

Explain Everything: The iPad is great for drawing on with your fingers and it has a microphone, so why not talk and draw at the same time! That’s the premise behind Explain Everything. Here are some examples from Tiffany and Bethany in my Anatomy class.

WordPress and BlogPress: Since I run a paperless classroom based on student blogs, these apps see a lot of heavy use. Besides the obvious benefits of being able to create and edit blogs on the iPad (I’m using the WordPress app to write this), a secondary benefit is that students without Internet access at home can work on drafts that can be saved on the iPad at home and published once they’re back on the school’s WiFi.

Evernote: If you are familiar with Evernote at all, you know that it can do a lot. It should be no surprise, then, that different students use Evernote in many different ways. Several AP Biology students (including Steven and Mandi) are using it to keep track of some of their long-term experiments, taking both notes and pictures that they then use later in blog posts. Another student and I use a shared Notebook in Evernote to make sure he doesn’t lose his work, which for most of the first quarter seemed to never make it onto his blog. Using Evernote on both of our iPads lets me see his writing, even if it never makes it to his public blog.

Camera: No App Store link is necessary for this one, as long as you’ve got an iPad 2 or later model. The camera allows students to capture both still pictures and video. Some of the uses of pictures taken with the iPad can be seen on Evan’s Chemistry blog where he captures a periodic table scavenger hunt sheet he did and at Ashley’s Anatomy blog where she captures drawings from a histology lab. An example video is this one that Henry shot on his iPad in AP Biology to introduce the class to his viewers.

Skitch: Once students have pictures on the iPad, Skitch can be used to draw and annotate on top of those pictures for artistic and academic purposes. Some examples can be found on Leeanne’s blog and Stephen’s blog.

AirPlay and screen sharing: While not technically an App, one of the built-in features of the newer iPads is the ability to share the iPad screen over an AirPlay connection. In my room we use AirServer on my Mac to project student iPads onto the screen for the whole class to see. This has come in handy several times when those “google moments” happen in the middle of a discussion when a student wants to contribute something they just pulled up on their iPad. Much more about the technical side of AirPlay sharing can be found here.

Vernier Video Physics: I’ve mentioned this app before, but its awesomeness begs for it to be mentioned again. Students take videos of anything in motion and can create motion maps and graphs simply by marking where the object of interest is over time. Here’s an example from a constant velocity buggy lab.

Prezi: If you’ve been a Prezi user as long as I have, you’ll know that it has come a long way from its early days as a spinning, sometimes nausea-inducing replacement for powerpoint. These days there’s a Prezi app, and, while it can’t do everything that the web version can do, it does have some editing capabilities. I have several students currently working on Prezis, and some even prefer working on them on the iPad.

That’s the wrap up of the apps we use most. Sure, there are several science apps on the iPads, too, like our Inkling Hole’s Anatomy textbook, Visible Body, Frog Dissection, and Molecules, but these apps and books are content-specific tools that get used for a special purpose only every now and then. The real workhorse apps seem to be the ones that allow for manipulation of text, images, and video into new forms. These kinds of tools can be applied regardless of the content being discussed and give students creative new ways to show what they know.

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This post is an update to my older year end wrap up that seems to get a lot of traffic from people searching for “standards-based grades” and similar terms. I can only assume that there are lots of folks out there trying to get their heads around what SBG is about and how to do it. What follows will be a (hopefully) concise discussion of my spin on SBG and how I assess students using blogs and portfolios.

If you’ve drunk even a little bit of the SBG kool-aid you’ll know that the lofty goals of grading and assessment reform can be stated something like this:

  • have students show what they really know and can do
  • make learning rather than grades the focus
  • if you have to produce a “grade,” reform your grade book to reflect learning, not compliance/completion
  • ditch points-based, averaging nonsense and banish “zeros” since neither concept helps describe what a student knows and can do
  • since grades reflect learning, allow reassessments to show new understanding of concepts

If these sound like ideas you can get behind, read on. If you like your current, points-based system, read on too, because you’ll feel justified in a little bit.

How do you meet the lofty goals listed above? Here is roughly the sequence of steps that I would recommend:

Step 1: Define your standards

Notice I didn’t say to parrot back your state standards or (goodness gracious) our new national standards. These have to be yours. As in “these are the things that I really believe to be important” standards. There should be some overlap, of course, if your state department of education has done its job reasonably well. Different people will approach this very differently, from having lots and lots of standards to having only a few. Marzano suggests that we should “limit measurement topics to 20 or fewer per subject area and grade level.” I read this after I had done my standards-crunching, but I agree with it, since I identified just 9 major areas that I wanted to assess. These are Content Knowledge, Research, Lab Skills, Experimental Design, Data Analysis, Tech Savvy, Communication, Self-Analysis, and Contribution to Community.

The most unique thing about this set of standards compared to others I’ve seen is the smashing of all the content for each course into one standard. I teach science and so have lots and lots of content to discuss in each of my courses (anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and AP Biology and yes, I’m at a rural school with only 4 science teachers in grades 7-12 for 600 kids). I don’t think that content is the most important thing, though, not anymore, with the interwebz and such just a Google away. I don’t ignore content ideas, I just don’t overemphasize them in the final grade determination. Instead, I’m more interested in building a skill set for students that they are going to take with them regardless of which little factoids that they remember from my classes. But that’s my take on standards. Yours will be yours.

Step 2: Develop an Assessment Philosophy

Yes, I know this sounds like something that you did for an assignment once upon a time in teacher-school, but really, it will help you out greatly if you put it down in words, especially if you make it available to parents and students. Mine’s here, if you want an example. I’m sure it would fail all of the guidelines for an official teacher-school document, but there it is. This doc is where you need to think about what you believe about assessment of student learning: Do you give quizzes and tests to see what kids know? Does every student do the same set of assignments in the same way? Will you assess using your favorite worksheets but score them by standard? Can students make up for failing or missed assignments or is assessment a one-shot deal so they learn the value of deadlines?

Basically, what you want to do in this Assessment Philosophy is lay out how you plan on determining what students know and what they can do. Again, my way of doing it may be very different from yours. I have students do a ton of writing and creating in blogs and portfolios but do almost no formal testing. Other teachers that I adore do lots of tests and quizzes that show how much their students have learned. Good arguments exist for both kinds of assessments.

Step 3: Determine how you will assign final grades

Ah, the stickiest issue of all, particularly for high school teachers who get to deal with parents and students worried about class rank, scholarships, and acceptance to their favorite college. Woo hoo!? If you have to assign grades, and most of us do, this is the part where your idealistic standards hit the wall of whatever online gradebook your school happens to suscribe to. Some play nicer with standards than others, but in any case you are going to have to figure out how to mesh what you do with standards with what students and parents see in the gradebook. I happen to have been fortunate enough to be good friends with my tech director who set up some lovely manually entered standards within Infinite Campus so I can determine the grade however I want and just report it out online. Other teachers I’ve read about have not been so lucky, having to prove that x% of their grade comes from labs and y% from tests or whatever, which will take a bit more massaging in a standards-based system.
You will want to carefully consider how you convert what students do on lots of separate standards into a single letter grade. This task sucks and essentially reverse-engineers everything you’ve been trying to do, but until more teachers and school districts get behind just reporting learning standards, we’ll have to deal with it. Many options exist: Will you figure out an average score using scores from all the standards? Will you have basic and advanced standards and use achievement of the advanced ones to assign higher letter grades? Will you look at performance on all the standards at once and apply a set of rules to determine a final grade? I lean towards the latter and have a system in place that counts the number of advanced, proficient, partially-proficient, and unsatisfactory standards to determine the final grade.

Step 4: Try it out!

Implementation time! After a summer of planning and writing about your new standards-based grading system, the first days of school are going to be great! Except don’t expect students to want to hear every detail all at once. Spend some time getting to know your students and building up your classroom community before digging into the nitty gritty of how their grades will be determined. Oh sure, make your pretty documents and web pages available, but don’t expect students to read them right away, if ever. Instead, coach students on the philosophy of your class, about what they can do to show you that they are learning something in your class. Give them the tools to be successful on your assessments, even if they don’t quite see the big picture of how standards-based grading in your class works. And constantly remind them that they can improve on past failures and mistakes, if you allow that sort of thing, because chances are your students have been trained to fire and forget on most assessments. Its the mental shift that you need to work on, not just in yourself, but in your students as well for this sort of assessment scheme to succeed.

Be warned, though. These changes will come at a serious price: your time.

There are some school days that I look enviously at the student aides for one of my neighbor teachers, slogging away with an answer key and a red marker at piles of that teacher’s turned-in assignments. Oh, says I upon seeing such sights, why didn’t I stay with the worksheet and my lovely 10 (or 1) point grading system? I could have aides do my grading for me. It was so easy to check off whether someone had done some learning or not. But I know that system didn’t really do much besides speed up the process of assigning a grade, and wasn’t really about assessment at all.

It takes time to really get to know what kids are learning in your classroom. Anyone, including student aides, can grade a worksheet, tally a point total, and enter it into a grade book without knowing a darn thing about the student that turned it in. It will take more time to grade by standards, particularly if you are going to go the route I did and develop student blogs and online portfolios. Those sorts of things take time to make and take time to assess so be prepared to spend more class time on assessments and be ready to spend more of your own time on reviewing them.

I love this note that a reader left in a conversation on my Assessment Philosophy:

I’ve been reading this document and now have a clearer idea of what you were talking about. My principal question, which I’m sure is answered somewhere, is how does one manage it? Reading and commenting on scores of portfolios that vary greatly in quality would seem to be an extremely time-consuming endeavor. I have been in a 17 year struggle to have a normal life outside of teaching, one I have largely lost. I want the students to do most of the thinking and the work while I do relatively little, but for general classes anyway, the reverse seems to be most true. Do you know where in Chris’ webpage or blog he reveals the secrets to evaluating the portfolios without committing evenings and weekends to the task? Thanks,

Larry

Larry is absolutely in the right in thinking that reading and commenting on blogs and portfolios is extremely time consuming. But the tradeoff is that no two student blogs are the same and reading a student’s writing is so much more interesting than scoring worksheets. The digital artifacts they create will be very unique and entertaining if they are done well, as most are in my experience. Is it overwhelming at times? Sure! But strategies like using Google Reader to keep track of when students post and which ones I’ve read and using Google Doc spreadsheets (or Blue Harvest) for keeping track of comments helps a lot. I also keep links to all student portfolios in one place using Pearltrees, which makes access to the otherwise clunky Google Sites in our district much more useable.

I found, too, that as the school year progressed, I spent much less time “grading” the blogs and was able to just read them to keep tabs on what the students were writing about and making sure they weren’t straying too far afield in putting their portfolio together. This happened somewhere around the end of the first semester when there was an “aha” moment of sorts for a lot of students when they finally understood what the portfolio was about and how it was being used to determine their overall grade. From that point on, it was obvious to students that the blank portfolio pages that I provided for them represented what I wanted them to know before they left the class. From then on, they became much more aware of what had to be done and they just did it, regardless of whether I “graded” their posts every time or not. In fact, for most of 2nd semester I only graded the portfolio (since that’s what I said I would grade anyway) and just read the blog posts for fun as part of the portfolio.

I think there will always be some sort of “training period” each school year in which I have to do a lot of “grading” and actually give blog posts scores on the 4 point scale just to give students an idea of what I’m looking for, but from then on, they seem pretty capable of producing artifacts for the portfolio without me having to grade each and every one of them. Grading the portfolios was an awesome way to end the year and a real triumph for standards-based grading since the portfolio made it so easy to assess what a student had learned in specific areas.

Still, I won’t claim to be sad to hit summer so I can spend some more time with my own little grumkins:

Ludwig kids

Thanks for hanging on through this not-so-concise romp through how I implement standards-based grades in my classes. I encourage you to try even small steps to reform your grading system, if you haven’t already. As for all the details, I’m sure there’s tons of stuff I left out so drop me a comment and we’ll fill in the gaps together.

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I’ve been asked a few questions lately about what my classes look like: Are your classes “flipped?” What kind of assignments do you give? How much lecturing do you do?

I thought about writing a post answering these, but then today I was evaluating this portfolio and thought that I would just post a link to it instead.

If you spend some time with this portfolio you’ll see:

  • Assessment by skill and content-area standards
  • Extensive use of various web-based tools
  • Reflection on one’s own learning
  • Cooperative group projects
  • Content-area writing
  • Student-designed experiments
  • Use of multiple devices and apps

This is what my classes look like.

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In which an Apple fan chooses a cheaper alternative for sharing iPad screens.

Simply put, there are times that I need to show content-related stuff to my class so we can engage material as a group. Call it lecture, call it discussion, call it whatever you like. When I first started teaching, that consisted of a chalkboard and my lame drawing skills. These days I’m much more of a tech geek, but even tech geeks have to experiment with what works for sharing material with the class.

For a long time I ran my classroom primarily with a standard setup of a laptop and an LCD projector that could project to a pull-down screen in the front of the class. A good setup, of course, but it requires the teacher to either be at the computer or use some sort of wireless mouse or controller to take over the computer if they want to walk around the room during discussions.

Enter the smartboard. I got one even though I didn’t request one. I learned to use it well enough but never fell in love with the software that came with it. What the smartboard does do reasonably well, though, is allow students and teachers to poke and prod the screen to make things happen. On the whole, I’ll overlook the software aspects of that particular tech fiasco and say that yes, the smartboard added some capability to the projection system.

Enter the iPad. Unlike the smartboard, I actually requested one of these, an iPad2. I also heard about teachers using AppleTV to mirror the iPad to their projector screen/smartboard so I requested and got one of those, too, the 2nd gen model that allows AirPlay streaming. At only $100, it seemed a cheap way to go to get some more functionality out of the iPad during class discussions. It works for that purpose, if you have an adapter for your old LCD projector to change the HDMI output of the AppleTV into something the projector can use. At first I used a HDMI to video converter box that worked through composite video. I was not too happy with the poor image quality, as might be visible in these pics:

AppleTV menu, composite videoiPad mirrored to AppleTV and composite video

I then upgraded to an HDMI to VGA converter box (with audio) that worked pretty well. Color reproduction was closer to the iPad and images and text were sharper:

HDMI to VGA adapter AppleTV menu with VGA adapteriPad mirrored to AppleTV with VGA adapter

My major beef with this setup was the shrinking of the screen. Why does the AppleTV menu take up the whole screen while the mirrored iPad, even in landscape mode, fills up only half of the screen? Text is just too small to see, both in the main menu and in several presentation apps. Sure you can pinch and zoom, but being crippled with a tiny screen area annoyed me. Plus, with this setup, the single VGA cable to the projector is occupied by the AppleTV, so the only way to share a laptop screen with the class (for the occasional flash site that doesn’t work with Puffin Browser, or some animations I use from a Windows XP virtual machine) is to use an iPad app like Splashtop that streams the laptop screen to the iPad and from there to the AppleTV. It works, but the small screen area was still a problem. Also, though I hate to admit it, I sometimes missed the smartboard functionality of tapping on the projected image. Since the laptop was mostly out of the loop, so was the connection to the smartboard, except in some amazingly convoluted smartboard-laptop-splashtop-ipad-appletv-projector chain of events.

Enter Airserver. Airserver software for the Mac has been around for a while, but apparently has only recently acquired AirPlay functionality and the ability to mirror an Airplay device (latest iPads or iPhone) to the screen of the laptop. There’s another Mac app, Reflection, that does something similar but in my hands it had some glitches with video playback and I never made it past the 10 minute trial period. Airserver on the other hand, has been a gem. Its only $12 for education types, a good start. It installs and fires up easily and my iPad quickly found my Mac on our school’s network. Basically, you connect the iPad to your laptop just as you would to mirror to the AppleTV. I set my Mac to not mirror displays and set the AirServer preferences so that it would stream to the second display (my LCD projector). This way I can have a set of resources open on the Mac screen that only I see (attendance, grades, email), a set of student resources on the projected display from the Mac, and, when I connect the iPad, a set of shared resources that are controlled from the iPad, all without switching any cables. The audio, video, and smartboard all run through the laptop, but I can take over the projection screen with an iPad at any time, including projecting student iPads when needed.

With Airserver, not only do I have the option to poke and prod my smartboard since the Mac is back in charge, but now the streamed iPad image fills the entire screen of the smartboard:

AirServer fixes the size issue in my iPad mirroring setup

In case you are wondering, the streaming performance of this Airserver setup seems pretty comparable to what I saw with the AppleTV in terms of framerate on streamed video and mirrored apps. I experienced a little audio lag every now and then with Coaster Physics, but haven’t noticed it with other apps. AirPlay-enhanced apps like Zombie Gunship work fine, too (after students have gone home, of course).

In summary, I traded a $100 piece of hardware for a $12 bit of software that allows streaming of iPad screens to my smartboard in a format large enough to read from the back of the classroom. This software-based solution, Airserver, seems to be superior in video quality to the AppleTV, particularly when used with an older projector without an HDMI input. Also, smartboard functionality is maintained by a setup that keeps a laptop as the primary driver of the projected image.

Edit: Another use for AirServer – If you are presenting iPad content, apps, etc. in a location with no network connectivity, connect the iPad to the Mac via Bluetooth to still allow the iPad screen to be projected to a large audience.

Edit 1/7/13: Your network infrastructure may need to be tweaked to get the best performance with either AirServer or AppleTV over WiFi. Both operate using AirPlay which relies on Bonjour technology to find devices on local networks. On our network the two devices (iPad and Mac or iPad and AppleTV) had to be on the same subnet, as Bonjour works best on the local subnet only. This means that if you have a big network with several subnets, as most larger organizations will, you will occasionally have the two devices pull addresses from different subnets, in which case AirPlay will not work. We got around this at my school by creating a separate subnet that is just for student iPads, a few AppleTV’s, and laptops that they connect to. This also solved a problem we were having with teachers using Doceri on the iPad where they could not connect to their laptop due to being on different subnets. If your network administrator doesn’t want to juggle WiFi subnets for you, a Bluetooth connection is your best bet.

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I’ve had three chances now to assess my students’ eportfolios for letter grades, and I love ‘em. Portfolios and students, that is, not grades. Yes, my school still requires letter grades each quarter, but I hope that someday these sorts of learning portfolios that we are building can be shared without having to be cheapened by labeling them with a simple letter rating. A good portfolio can stand on its own and doesn’t need somebody like me to point out whether it is awesome or not. In fact, in my perfect future world each kid who applies for college or a job fills in their application (most are online by now) and pastes in a link to their portfolio. Colleges and employers can click to see what sort of person they are getting, complete with writing samples, content-area knowledge, evidence of skills gained and so on. No more silly essay questions and no more inflated resumés full of made up extracurricular activities, just a real record of what the student actually accomplished in school. Yes, I know they will take time to read, believe me, but you are about to create your future student body or workforce. Don’t you want to know what they’re capable of?

Vision of a grade-less future aside, here are some reasons why I’ll keep using online portfolios at least into next year:

1. The portfolio fills the gap in evidence for Standard 8: Self-reflection

Ever since I started using standards-based assessment, I’ve used 9 major standards as the backbone of all my classes. One of the nine (insert Lord of the Rings reference here) is content-specific knowledge, four are science process skills, two are communication/tech/21stC skills, and two are the touchy-feely standards of self-reflection and contribution to the learning community.

Before the portfolios were implemented, students managed to produce a wide variety of evidence for the community standard (successful group projects, blog comments from within and beyond the school, stats on page views for certain blog posts) but had a rough time performing self-reflection. Sure, a few people got it and wrote long, involved blog posts about what they did best and what they would change about their work habits, but most students were flummoxed by the idea of writing what seemed to them a fake-sounding, possibly brown-nosing post full of what the teacher wanted in a “reflection.”

With the eportfolio, though, self-reflection and analysis of one’s work are built into the system. Students are given a blank Google Sites template for the portfolio at the beginning of the year and are asked to select the evidence of learning that goes on each page. They not only have to include links to relevant blogposts or other artifacts that they have created, but they also need to justify to the portfolio reviewers why they feel that a particular artifact meets the goal of that particular section of the portfolio. So on each portfolio page, if done well, there exist links to student products and the students’ rationale for why they believe that those artifacts demonstrate that they have mastered a particular standard. Win! There’s even an entire page of the portfolio devoted to the self-reflection standard so that students can’t miss the fact that it’s a major skill that I want them to practice. That page gets used differently from student to student, but some of the most impressive ones I’ve seen have a running dialog with themselves from quarter to quarter about how the portfolio is shaping up.
For example:

sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

another sample student Standard 8 portfolio page

2. The portfolio streamlines the demonstration of evidence of learning in a standards-based course

Instead of poking through blog posts on a student blog, which are organized by whenever the student decided to sit down and create them, the portfolio allows the reviewer(s) to see at a glance which major topic and skill standards have been addressed by each student. Don’t misunderstand me, the blogs are a vital piece of communication between the student and I as they are learning, but when the quarter or semester grade rolls around and I need to switch to judge mode, it’s a lot easier for me to do SBG with the portfolio than it was with a student blog by itself.

3. The portfolio can be an amazing record of progress towards specific goals.

As mentioned above, I use only 9 major standards for the whole year for each class. You can bet we have repeat attempts to demonstrate each one, that’s kinda the point of choosing only the 9 really important things that I want kids to be able to do. In the example Standard 8 pages above, you can see that this plays out in the portfolio on individual portfolio pages where students have retained their discussion of that standard from previous quarters and so can refer back to what they previously said or thought.

So, yes, I will keep using the portfolios. They aren’t all perfect and there are, of course, varying levels of student commitment to the idea. But, for not a lot of extra work, students leave each of my courses with a record of what they really did to earn that lovely letter on their transcript. I can only hope that someday someone important in their life will find their portfolio more useful than that lovely letter.

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iPads as sketchpads

Group drawing of a neuron using iPads

I’m going to return to my roots as an edtech blogger for a moment and recap this past semester’s iPad deployment project, so those of you used to reading my notes about SBG will have to wait for the next post.

Let me begin by saying that this project would not have been possible without Erik, my district’s technology guru and grant writer. He was open to the purchase of iPads, found the money to do so, and has provided advice along the way. An additional word of thanks goes to our student tech interns Kiel and Michael for the initial unboxing and setup of the iPads this past summer. It really has been a group effort to get to the point we are at now.

Begin with the laptop
I’ve been lucky enough to run my classroom with 1:1 laptops for the last couple of years through the use of a dedicated cart of MacBooks. While students normally don’t take the laptops home, every student has an assigned MacBook so that they always logged into the same one every time and so were able to customize their tech setup to their liking. This is a huge point that I’ll be coming back to: students (and teachers too) love to customize their devices. This allows for local and cloud saved files, bookmarks, passwords, and user interface tweaks that collectively define a student’s workflow using the laptops in my class.

Enter the iPad
I had been an iPod Touch user for a while and knew the ins and outs of Apple’s iOS but really hadn’t played with an iPad much outside of an Apple store. Several students had their own iPod or iPhone in class and we managed to do some productive things with them such as web access, calculations, and the occasional reference app like wikipanion. So when Erik mentioned that he might have some funds available to buy a small number of iPads, I was of course interested in trying them out to see what students would be able to do with them. We ended up purchasing several iPad2′s over the summer and I managed to snag one for myself to play with.

Preparing for 1:1 deployment
After tinkering with the iPad for a while over the summer, I saw that the best use of the iPad in a pilot trial would be as a vehicle for sharing resources for my anatomy and physiology class. In particular, I wanted to replace our old mangled anatomy textbooks with an iPad-based text such as that offered through the Inkling app. There were a number of anatomy apps such as Visible Body and VueMe that I wanted to use with students as well, so I pitched the idea to Erik of a pilot iPad trial with my anatomy class, since that seemed the best audience for a limited number of iPads. That’s indeed what we agreed on and later we added a few more iPads to the project by also distributing them to my physics class, for a total of 42 students with iPads, since there was a lot of overlap with students taking both classes.

Setting up the iPads
As I mentioned above, our awesome student interns did the unboxing and initial prep of the iPads, which consisted only of loading a profile that allowed access to the school’s wifi. The rest was up to me. I set up my school MacBookPro as the sync station by creating an iTunes library in a different user account than my normal login with a unique Apple ID. I bombarded Erik with requests for apps from Apple’s Volume Licensing Program and got those installed. I begged our principal to allow the purchase of the anatomy textbook on Inkling and, after some discussion about whether this was a technology or a textbook purchase, he was able to find the money in the budget to buy the texts. The folks at Inkling were really helpful and got me set up with a class set (30) of anatomy texts, each tied to an Inkling account that I manage so that I can reissue the textbooks even after I wipe the iPads at the end of this year.

Distributing the iPads
My philosophy from the beginning of this pilot project was that students should have their own iPad to use at school and at home and that they should be able to take full advantage of the iPad’s capabilities by having full control over their own device. So after preloading the iPads with a set of apps that I thought they might find handy, I had students sign the required paperwork, did a brief orientation session, then turned them loose with their new iPads to see what they could do with them. Most students immediately set up their own Apple accounts on the devices and added new apps and music to their iPads. This started the process of having the students customize the device for their own use, a process that is still ongoing.

iPads as cell nuclei
iPads as cell nuclei in human models of tissue types

What do students do with the iPads?

We’ve been using the iPads for a semester now, and they are just there, quietly a part of what we do, now that the rush of a new toy has faded. Sometimes they replace the MacBook. Sometimes they get replaced by the MacBook.  I wanted to get a better sense of what the iPads were being used for, so I gave students a survey last week about their use of the iPads and here’s what I found:

    1. With few exceptions, students claim that they use their iPad a lot, both at school and at home.
    2. Students claim to spend about equal time on school and non-school related activities on the iPads.
    3. Students’ most used app varies widely among survey participants. Top apps listed were Safari, Pandora, Facebook, Pages, Calculator, Mail, and FaceTime.
    4. Similarly, students favorite app varied widely among survey participants. Some of the favorite apps listed were Safari, Camera, Shakespeare, GarageBand, SimplePhysics, GoodReader, YouTube, The Elements, Angry Birds, Opera Mini, Osmos, and Evernote.
    5. The most interesting responses were to the question of whether the iPad was worth it and would they use one again next year:

I would because I can continually do my school work and do multiple assignments without finding a laptop.

YES IT IS. They’re fun and useful.

yes greatly for the fact of accessibility and learning about tech.

Yes I would because it helps with more than one subject and it is much more convenient  than carrying around a lap top.

yes i would, Sometimes when assignments are due that need to be done the next day, the iPad come in handy to get those done.

DEFINITELY. The iPad has been extremely useful in completing various types of schoolwork.

Yes I would. I would use it because it works fast and is easy to take everywhere.

Yes! i use it all the time! Even though i do mess around on my iPad its still get a lot of work done.

Yes I would use it for school-related work next year. When I do use it for school-related work such as notes and projects it is extremely helpful. Also if I ever have a question that needs to be answered, I can easily get on the iPad and find the answer.

I think the iPad is worth it however a laptop may be more convenient because it allows more programs to be used. For example I don’t have a computer at home at the moment and Most of my school work requires some sort of technology and thats when the iPad comes in handy however I can’t do everything on the iPad.

I am not a technology based person although I was born in the tech-boom era. I appreciate technology to an extent with its resources, but I believe that some things should not be “turned into an app”. For me, I would stick to using the laptops. iPads are higher quality, and more notorious, but I find their powers to be limited. They are difficult to keep clean as well. It is a great idea though, for saving space. That’s coming from a traditionalist. I’d say keep the iPads for future use, just not for me.

Not any more than I do now.  I don’t like Apple products, they’re overpriced and overhyped.  Not to mention the nonsensical programs you have to download just to use an Apple product.  They aren’t worth the trouble.

YES!  I use Pages all the time to take notes for all of my classes and to type up reports.  I also use it to connect to things like Edmodo and GoogleDocs whenever i need. The IPads come in handy many times during the day!

Some takeaways from the survey

Given their own personal iPad and the freedom to modify it, high school students use the iPad in a variety of different ways and for multiple courses throughout the school day. Nearly every student had their own beliefs as to which apps were the best or the ones they used most. Games are on the iPads, but so are a variety of tools for school-related tasks and the students who took this survey believe that they can find a balance between the two. The overwhelming majority of students would use them in coursework again next year if given the chance, which was an interesting result given that most students taking the survey were seniors who are unlikely to get an iPad from me next year since they’ll have graduated.

In conclusion, after a semester with 1:1 iPads, the reviews from students are very positive on the whole, although not every student chooses the iPad as their primary learning tool. iPads seem to allow students to personalize the technology that they use to navigate the requirements of their different courses. Furthermore, by allowing students to take the iPads home, both students and their families have been able to use the devices for a variety of tasks that they might not otherwise have been able to accomplish. Efforts are underway at our school to integrate the iPad into other disciplines besides science and to increase the number of iPads that we can put into the hands of students.

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