Science Teaching with Technology

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This is a cautionary tale about what happens when educational technology fails. Of course, tech breaking down is nothing new, but reliance on technology in a 1:1 learning environment introduces some complications that you might not have thought about.

Not so long ago, I would have ranked myself up there on the list of folks who knew how to do educational technology pretty well. I had managed to score a cart of MacBooks so that each student could be guaranteed 1:1 access during class time at least, and I went about implementing some fancy new strategies like student blogging. I even got tagged to write an article in Edutopia about it in 2010, so I was doing something at least marginally interesting with technology at the time.

A year later I was able to convince my tech coordinator and principal that I could really use a class set of iPads since my hardcopy Anatomy textbooks were falling apart and there were some new apps appearing that would let my students get their textbooks electronically. When the district bought some new iPad2′s, I snagged a class set and went on to check them out to students in my own mini version of a 1:1 program for about 40 students at a time. We used the Inkling app to buy 30 copies of Hole’s Anatomy on the iPads and shelved the old textbooks, definitely a win in most #edtech circles.

Fast forward to this school year, 2014-15, in which I’ll need to use the same laptops that’ve been around in my room since 2008, but now add in the fact that our technology coordinator spent the summer closing up shop as he left for a new (less stressful and well deserved) job so no new technology hardware purchases were made nor any older units repaired. This means that several macs that I sent in for a missing key or sticky mousepad are now completely AWOL, as are several iPads that needed minor repairs, as are multiple batteries from the Macs (the removable variety) since I pulled several for disposal at the beginning of the summer.

I should also mention that I have 46 Anatomy students but only 38 working iPads and only 30 Inkling textbook licenses, so the tradition of loaning an iPad to every Anatomy student ended this year.

This is when I realize how spoiled I’ve been. I have always been able to get all the technology that I felt that students needed to learn in a “modern” classroom. But now that a lot of that technology is powerless (literally) to help my students, what’s a tech-nerd to do without technology? How does a very functional 1:1 implementation carry on when it is no longer 1:1?

We’re going old-school, of course. My Juniors and Seniors in the Anatomy class are coloring. ON PAPER (using study guide packets, and, yes, I see some irony in that after slamming packets in a previous post). We’re using a hardcopy textbook again. Its from 2004 and most are falling apart in some way.

But here’s the fun part: I think coloring diagrams of the human body has a place in an anatomy course, and I forgot that in my quest for the latest gadgets. I think students poring over a list of terms and deciding their locations in a particular type of tissue, organ, or system has a lot of merit as a learning tool. Its not that the iPad can’t do that, but I honestly rarely saw my students using the iPads that way. If you give a student a handout to help them learn about the human body, there is pretty much only one use for that handout, but if you give them an iPad, it gets a little more complicated. If you were a student with an iPad, would you choose to read an anatomy text on it instead of using one of the other thousands of apps that it could run? Maybe, if the teacher forced you to, but I never did think that forcing kids into certain apps was the best use of iPads, which meant that our fancy Inkling app textbooks went largely unused, I’m sorry to say.

This year represents a chance to take a much lower-tech approach to teaching Anatomy, a return to how I used to teach it in some ways. Oh, I’ll still use technology for the class. In fact, we’ve already got our blogs set up and will eventually set up our assessment portfolios online too, as we’ve done for the past few years. The only difference might be in the kinds of artifacts we post there. Expect to see some more coloring, and, who knows, maybe some better test scores as well.


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I’ve received some requests recently to share the biology portfolio that I use with my students. Here’s a quick note about how to use my template to set up a Google Sites portfolio for students to use.
  • In experimenting with student-managed portfolios, I’ve found it best to create a Template Site that students can use to create their portfolio. If you have a set of standards for your class that you want students to reflect upon, then a template is the easiest way to make sure that those standards are part of their portfolio.
  • You’ll want to try this yourself first, especially if you want to modify my template site for your own set of standards. I’ll break this up into teacher and student instructions, which might be the same if you don’t use Google Apps for Education (GAFE).

Teacher instructions for creating your own template Site from my biology portfolio template:

The location where you publish your portfolio template depends upon whether you are using GAFE or regular Google Apps. GAFE users: I would make the template within your domain for students to find. Regular Google users need to post the template to Google’s Public templates like I did. You could even just point students to my public template if you don’t want to create your own.

  1. Log in to Google Apps (either a personal account or GAFE) and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first (this is usually the easiest place for you to put a template for students to use).
  5. For now though, you are looking for a public template, so click on Public>Schools and Education in the “Select Site Template” window.
  6. You are looking for a site template called “Skills-Based Biology Portfolio.”  Searching for “Biology” in “Schools and Education” templates will usually find it.
  7. Select the Skills-Based Biology Portfolio template to use for your Site. This will give you an exact copy of the site that I give to my biology students.
  8. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  9. Once you’ve edited the Site to your liking and you are ready to share it with students, go to More Site Options (the gear icon)>Manage Site.
  10. Under Manage Site>General there should be the option to “Publish this site as a template.” Click that.
  11. Give your Template a name and description then click “Submit.”
  12. Done! Now you have a template that students can find either within your GAFE domain or in the Public templates.

Student instructions for creating a portfolio Site from a teacher-created template:

  1. Log in to Google Apps and find Google Sites from the App chooser.
  2. Once in Sites, click on Create.
  3. At the top of the Create New Site page should be the option to “Browse the Gallery for More” templates. Click on this.
  4. If you are in GAFE, your district-wide templates appear first. Find your course’s portfolio template.
  5. Select the portfolio template that you want to use for your Site.
  6. Give it a name (which also determines the address URL) and you are ready to start editing it.
  7. Share the URL of your site with everyone who will be reviewing your portfolio.

Here’s a little screencast that I whipped up for the portfolio setup from the student’s perspective:

Setting up a student portfolio from a template

Let me know if you want me to post any of my other portfolio templates (Anatomy, Chemistry, AP Biology) to the Public templates.

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I’ll be giving a short presentation later this week at the Denver Regional NSTA meeting about how (and why) to use portfolios for assessment and evaluation in science classrooms. For those of you who like to mark up slides during a talk, here’s the set of slides (pdf link) that I plan to use. They’ll make a little more sense with some dialogue to accompany them, but even if you aren’t attending, you can get most of the main points that I’ll try to make. Be sure to come find me there, or drop me a note in the comments if you have questions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. All photos and screenshots (except the textbook figure on chemical bonding) are from my physical and digital classroom.

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I’ll get to the point of this post in a bit, but first, if you’re wondering what I’ve been doing this summer, here are some pics from my deck construction project in my backyard:

Deck construction site


Back Deck


Back Deck 2


Aside from bragging about my deck, there’s a point about learning to be made here. How did I “know” how to build this deck? Was I born a carpenter? Certainly not. It was something I wanted to know how to do so I learned how to do it.

Let’s think about how we learn, for a second. And by we, I mean everyone, including educators. Do you read about what you are trying to learn? Do you watch videos? Do you look for pictures of what you are trying to understand? I would argue that we do all these, but often the most powerful modes of learning involve visuals. Even textbooks are not just text. They’ve got lots of helpful pictures and diagrams to help explain the concepts in the text.

When I wanted to learn how to build a bench on my deck, I did an image search and came up with this:

Deck Bench Plans

I didn’t really pay attention to the text of the article, at least at first. The picture pretty much does the explaining: tie in framing members to your joists, cut the back support at a certain angle, make each piece so long, etc. I could adapt this basic design to my deck by changing the dimensions of the bench and the hardware that I had on hand to attach it. The point is that I could get about 90% of the important details of how to build a bench just from this image alone.

You could certainly argue that this is a special case of learning that only applies to construction, but I’m going to suggest that our classrooms could operate along similar principles, especially as related to our use of lecture software tools such as Powerpoint.

Powerpoint lectures are often the whipping boy of the #edchat crowd, and rightfully so. On the teacher side, canned Powerpoint lectures, often partially or entirely prepared by textbook companies, seem to deliver content, but really don’t teach content to students. On the student side, we are often happy to have students create Powerpoint presentations to show what they’ve “learned” even when we know that often the vast majority of what shows up in those slide shows is mostly copy/paste from their sources.

From a more #edtech perspective, I read all the time about “alternatives to Powerpoint” like Prezi, Keynote, or Google Presentations (all of which my students and I use and love, by the way). There’s also a lot of tips out there about how to make your Powerpoint slide shows better, if you must use them. Most of those hints seem to be along the lines of getting rid of text and bullet points and simplifying your slides down to just a few important images that you can talk about as you “deliver” the slide show.

If we are talking about removing the text from our Powerpoints and just including images for discussion, why do we need Powerpoint? I’ll argue here that you can run an entire lecture (ahem, discussion) just using image search results projected for the class. Sure its a little fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but we have another phrase for that these days: its called just-in-time learning and its fun.

To see how this works, try out this scenario taken directly from my AP Bio class: you are discussing the topic of photosynthesis with the class, maybe some specific aspect of it like the light reactions. Do an image search and see what pops up:

Photosynthesis image search

Project the search results to the class. Discuss with students which images they like the best and use those to get the discussion rolling. You’ll notice that lots of related ideas pop up so be prepared for conversations to travel in directions that you didn’t plan. That’s kind of the point though, isn’t it?

If you think about it, putting a slideshow presentation together automatically assumes that you have a flow that you want the conversation with your students to follow: we’ll talk about this, then this, then this. If you’ve made a “path” in prezi, you know what I’m talking about. There are times that paths work well, to be sure, but if you want to allow for student interests while still exploring your topic, then a canned, preplanned set of lecture slides is a hindrance to exploration. An image search, on the other hand, has a lot of potential to replace your lecture slides but still creates a focal point from which to start a whole class or small group discussion. Not only can teachers use this simple technique (no more building slide shows for hours) but so can students. When students want to explore an idea with you or other students, they can pull up image search results and project them to the class to start or support discussions as well.

I’ve done several of these image search discussions now and have found the conversations to be much richer than anything that I’ve managed to stimulate using lecture slides. Many students reported really enjoying the format and documented our modified lectures using cell phone or iPad cameras (see here). Sometimes students used the images that we discussed in class as the focal points for later blog posts about the topic (see here). Either way, the images that we found quite adequately replaced both expensive prepared Powerpoints and the tediously hand-made slide shows that I used to spend time creating.

I’ll definitely try to work in more of these image search discussions this coming school year, but I know they aren’t for everyone. It takes a fair bit of confidence in your subject matter in order to feel comfortable with discussing the unknown results that come up with any given set of search terms. You can get around this by narrowing your search down to a more specific topic so that there are fewer surprises. But I happen to like surprises, particularly if they get students interested in what I’m trying to teach.

Surprises. Free scientific illustrations. Conversations with students about science. No more slaving away formatting lecture slides to get them “just right.” Yep, I’ll be doing more of these kinds of discussions.

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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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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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One of the major changes that I made this year was to switch to using individual student blogs as the centerpiece of student assessment (the other major change was to implement standards-based grading). I started using student blogs for a number of reasons including:

  1. I was tired of grading worksheets with the same copied answers on them.
  2. I realized that these worksheets weren’t always helpful in learning content, and in fact, much of the time they got in the way of learning.
  3. Student in my classes have access to a MacBook cart whenever they are in my classroom and we have fantastically dependable wireless internet connectivity for these laptops (yay tech support!).
  4. Blogging platforms like Blogger and WordPress are free.
  5. I’m increasingly wary of multiple choice anything as real assessment and wanted students to write more.
  6. I wanted students to have a permanent, online record of their achievement throughout the year, not some pile of papers shoved in a binder (or trash can).
  7. I wanted students to have an audience for their work that would include each other, their families, the community, and the world.

With all these highfalutin ideals in mind, we launched our blogs at the beginning of this school year, with some fear and trembling.  Very few students had done any blogging before, although a couple had existing blogs from their English classes. The first challenge was to get everyone signed on to one of the blogging services. Most students chose Blogger, probably because we thought that that would be easier initially since we all had Google accounts. The only problem was that, at that time, at least, Google Apps accounts like my students had did not work with Blogger very well. Students ended up having to create their own Google accounts just so they could use Blogger. This wasn’t a big deal, just not as smooth as if Blogger were integrated into Google Apps.

So how did we use the blogs? They became the go-to location to post assignments for me to read and grade. For a week or two, though, I operated a lot like I did last year, posting assignments on Edmodo and using its great assignment features to have students turn things in online, as well as posting them to their blogs. I realized that this was a duplication of effort and soon instead of sending out “assignments” in Edmodo, I just sent files and links as “notes.” This meant that these resources no longer came with a due date and that I was not using Edmodo to see who turned in which assignments.

Instead, I figured out how to work Google Reader to monitor my students’ blogs. After subscribing to each students RSS or Atom feed, I organized all of their feeds into folders in Google Reader:

Reader allowed me to keep track of when students published new posts and to quickly find a particular student’s blog if we wanted to discuss something that they had posted. We still used Edmodo extensively for communication, just not for assessment. For example, if students made changes to their blogs, the changes would not always be highlighted in Reader so I asked students to message me on Edmodo if they made changes to a blog post that I had commented on already.

Speaking of comments, I did not personally comment directly on each student blog post. I figured that other readers of their blogs could do that. Instead, I gave feedback about each post as part of the student’s gradesheet entry. Some comments were pretty general (nice job! or something similarly lame) but I got better (I think) at commenting and left specific advice for ways to change the posts to better meet the standards.

One criticism that I’ve heard about my grading system is that it doesn’t spell out for students exactly what they need to do to meet a standard. I think that would be a concern, except for the fact that I tried to provide constructive comments on most everything students did and I let them respond to the comments by fixing their posts for a higher grade. Students did have to make the first effort at a blog post to try to show what they have learned about a particular topic or skill. I worked with them from there to improve their understanding by providing comments and discussing their posts with them. I had a number of students say that this was their favorite part of my class this year: the fact that they could try out a post, get some feedback, and go back and fix it as needed.

What did students blog about? Everything, really. Most of it was even related to the class ; )   As students and I discussed topics or performed labs in class, those topics and labs found their way in some form into students’ blogs. Some posts were simple text-based blog posts but at other times, students used a variety of web2.0 tools to put “learning artifacts” on their blogs. These learning artifacts included the use of Prezi, Glogster, Quizlet, Google Docs, Photobucket, DomoNation, Xtranormal,, and other tools.

If you’ve viewed the example posts linked above, you may have noticed that different students used different tools to discuss the same topic. That’s because I did not require that a particular tool be used with each assignment. Students were free to use the tool that they thought would work best for that particular post. If you are interested in exploring the wide range of content and quality that was produced this year, here are the links to all the student blogs.

Here are some of the awesome things about student blogging, in my experience:


Since students used many different tools to create artifacts for their blogs, I was never bored grading their posts, and in fact, was usually incredibly entertained and impressed by what students can create given the freedom to do so.

Portfolios of learning

The blogs became a record of student achievement that we can look back on for proof of learning. Along with their color-coded gradesheet, a student’s blog is a powerful indicator of the level of understanding for any given topic or skill that we learned throughout the year.

Wide audience of readers

Many people ended up looking at the students’ blogs, not just me. For example, parent conferences will never be the same again, since it was so easy to pull up a student’s blog in order to view and discuss the student’s level of performance. Parents have access to the entire list of student blogs, too, so it was easy at conferences to point parents there if they wanted to compare how their student was doing to how others were. The kid who has three blog posts starts squirming in conferences when their parents see other students blogs that have 10 or more posts.

Student blogs were also publicized via Twitter or my blog, which led some traffic their way. At least one student and future teacher made lots of connections with the edublogging community this year.

Resources for each other

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way. This is one of those things about teaching that is easy to say, but hard to do something about. However, the blogs let kids work at their own speed and with tools of their own choosing.  Inevitably, some student posts were finished before others and became learning tools for those students who were behind the rest of the class. Towards the end of the year, when they were a bit more mature in the whole process, some students even started giving credit for their peers’ work that helped them write their own posts. It was very cool to see them learning from each other via the blogs.

There were some challenges along the way, of course, as we tried blogging our way through the year:

Blog writing is time intensive

If you want students to do a good job writing their own blogs, be prepared to give them plenty of class time to write, revise, and experiment with new tools.  Every year it seems I get to discuss less and less content with students, but this year saw a big jump in the time I had to allow students to have workdays on the computer so that they could stay current with their blogs. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it will force me to look very carefully at what I have planned for next year’s classes.

Fair access to blogs

Part of the reason for spending time blogging in class is concern over the issue of fair access to the Internet in order to complete the blogging activities. Many students do not have easy computer access at home, although some do. I wanted to try to rule out any unfair advantage that students might have over others, but was only partly successful.  Of course a kid with his own computer and Internet access is going to have more chances to blog and make amazing products than another kid who has to rely on computer access during the 50 minutes I see them in class. I’m not sure that’s a reason, though, to not blog. Its more of a reason to agitate for more equitable Internet access in my community.

The Mac blogging platform is not as useful

There were some students, fortunately few in number, that for one reason or another, kept forgetting their Blogger account passwords and would get locked out of the system. For these few (maybe 5 students in all my classes) I set them up with blog accounts through our local MacServer. That let them use the same password as they used to log on to their laptop, but the advantages stopped there. We found that with the Mac-hosted blogs, there was no separate publish option, so as soon as a kid saved their blog, finished or not, it posted to my Reader. Also, we never figured out how to allow embedding within the Mac blogs so those students had to post simple hypertext links to the artifacts that they created rather than having them appear right in the blog page.


There was some plagiarism of blog posts, but it was usually incredibly easy to detect. The most obvious ones occurred when students simply lifted another student’s blog post and pasted it in as their own. I had one student, famous among teachers at our school for this sort of behavior, try this stunt about 5 times in a row trying to meet one particular standard. I simply refused to put any grade in her gradesheet until I was convinced it was her own work. Google searches and Plagium worked great for me in providing evidence that someone had copied material from a source or another student blog. I probably didn’t catch everything, and might jump in with our English teachers and somehow use Turnitin with the blogs to try to avoid problems next year.

Are blogs a rigorous assessment strategy?

One of the concerns that I had during the year was whether or not the new blogging paradigm is rigorous enough compared to the old model of lecture-worksheet-quiz-test-rinse-lather-repeat. This is a concern, of course, since I almost completely abandoned the traditional testing that I used to do (my Moodle site was very lonely this year).  Could I tell whether students were learning? Aren’t they just goofing around with web tools and having fun instead of suffering through the lectures that they need?

It was this article (via @mrsebiology) that convinced me that blogging can be just a rigorous as the tests that I used to give:

Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous,
provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging.

Blogging in many ways is an incredibly difficult task for students. Not only do they have to research background information about a topic, they have to synthesize a variety of ideas together in a coherent piece of writing or media. They encounter interesting ideas about the course content and write about how these concepts effect their lives and society in general. In many ways, that’s much more rigorous than any test I could give about stuff that I lectured on.

The worksheet is dead. Long live the blog.

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To celebrate my (belated) 1 year blogoversary, I went back over the year’s worth of posts just for kicks. The biggest trend I saw over time was more blogging about assessment and less blogging about 1:1 and edtech issues. Why the switch?

I think that the technology became so ingrained in what I do in my classroom that it is essentially invisible right in front of me. Of course we use blogs. Of course we have Edmodo, Moodle, and our Wikis. Why do I need to write about them? They are simply a routine part of what I do. I’d much rather be thinking of ways to improve assessment and instruction in my classes, now that the infrastructure is set.

Students, too, have made some comments lately to show they take our nearly paperless setup for granted. We made drawings of pedigrees in biology the other day and students, who have been in my class for over a semester now, didn’t know where to put their papers for me to review. When directed to place their pedigrees into the box, most students said “We have a box?” Some even made sure to do their pedigrees using drawing programs, just because that’s what they are used to.

So when did this shift happen? When did this blog stop being about technology? It stopped being about technology once I started teaching with 1:1 MacBooks and rock-solid wireless network. It stopped being about technology when I didn’t have to have my students leave the room to “go use the computers.” It stopped being about technology when access to the technology was no longer the pressing issue.  It feels like some sort of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs situation here, and I’ve somehow finally fulfilled one of the basic needs so that I can now pay attention to the other levels of need in my classroom.

Some people say they don’t “need” technology in their classroom, but I do.  It allows me to let students go off in multiple directions at once as they are pursuing their interests. It gives students multiple ways to show that they have acquired knowledge about our class topics. It gives students ways to communicate and stay organized. Access to technology allows my classroom to be student-centered.

That’s why you haven’t heard much from me lately about what technology we are using in class: it is so routine that it is ordinary and boring to consider as a separate issue. Of course we are using technology, why wouldn’t we?

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Everyone has their panties in a knot these days over accountability.  Much of the arguments hinge on test results and data interpretation but there’s a better way to approach the issue.  I’ll argue here that there is an easy way to make both students and teachers accountable for the learning that happens in our classrooms: publish everything you do online. Make it attractive, make it easily accessible, and make it an accurate reflection of what happens in your classroom.

One observation that I’ve made over the last couple days as we’ve had parent conferences/open house at my school is that having student blogs has totally changed how I communicate student progress to parents.  When I get the oft-asked question “why does my kid have a (insert letter grade here) in your class?” I can point that parent to their student’s blog and to the link to all the other student blogs just in case the parent wants to see what their student is doing compared to other students.  Is each blog private and secure? Nope, but it doesn’t have to be.  What if my students are making cool stuff that others can learn from? Why hide it.

Besides, the actual assessments of the blog posts are shared with students via a private GoogleDoc spreadsheet. If needed, I can give the parent access to their kid’s spreadsheet for another layer of accountability for the student (and myself). Nobody outside the student-parent-teacher triangle needs to see my evaluation and comments, but they might benefit from seeing the learning artifacts created, so that part is open and visible.

The student blogs are starting to be a good outreach to the community as well.  At least a couple parents have passed on the list of student blogs to others at their workplace who were interested in what we were doing around here.  Someday, perhaps, we’ll expand our reach to a regional/national/global audience with the students interacting with the readers of their blogs, but we are not there yet.

In the meantime, the activities that we do go deeper because students know that they probably will be posting a record of their work. For example, in a couple classes this week, students pulled out their cell phones and took pictures of labs they were working on. The pictures will enhance their final learning artifacts on their blogs, especially for my anatomy students studying for their histology exam from the pictures.

Can my students pass a standardized test that you give them? Maybe. But that doesn’t tell us anything, really. Look at their blogs, though, and you might have a better idea of what’s going on in their head. All we need to do now is find a way to scale up the process to the building, district, and state levels, but who knows how that would work.  Best to keep accountability measures local where they actually mean something besides more “data.”  I do know that some of my seniors are starting to figure out that the colleges they are applying to might be watching their blogs at some point, and I’ll be darned if that isn’t the best sort of accountability ever.

This is the second installment of my “student blogs of the week.”  What follows is a hand-picked set of my student’s blog posts that I think are great examples of the learning that is happening in my classes this past week.  I’ve chosen them for their content, style, and the tools they use.

This weeks anatomy and physiology posts worth viewing are from Nikki who fought with GoogleDocs and won. She created posts on directional terms and homeostasis which show how easy it is to share GoogleDocs through a blog platform (once you get GoogleDocs up and running). I think I’ve convinced her to skip creating documents in Word and go straight for GoogleDocs next time.

Several excellent biology posts were created this week including this one by Ali, who discusses the properties of water using a combination of text, Sliderocket, and Wordle.  Another interesting water properties-related post from Kelsea included this PhotoShow that she made from images she captured and annotated using Jing. Tyler and Seth both tackle the water properties content with some Xtranormal dialogs worth seeing.

Chemistry students got positively self-reflective about their week in their latest blog posts including great ones from Kiel and Isaac.  Andre, one of our foreign exchange students, got tired of fighting with his Blogger account and was willing to try hosting his blog on our local MacServer. You can see his excellent reflective post here.

So far I’ve been very impressed with how easy it is to determine if a student is learning something by reading their blog posts. Sure, some students are still at the stage of typing definitions into web2.0 tools and making artifacts that don’t speak too much to their understanding, but I’ve seen a progression in some already who can move past the definitions of terms to the broader concepts that I want them to focus on. That’s where the whole standards-based grading system shines: kids that are stuck on definitions at first can come around later to produce artifacts that show deeper understanding once they achieve it without a permanent penalty to their grade.

As always, feel free to comment on these and any other of my students’ blogs, they will surely appreciate it.

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