Taking time out

I have made some time today to actually sit down and write a blog post. This one has to do with teaching.

Starting last week, I had been in an email-exchange with the DET over getting a website unblocked for students at my school.

For those who are not familiar, there is a firewall that blocks websites being accessed through the school network and through school computers. It works for both students and teachers, with teachers having some more ‘freedom’ to get to the websites they might need that students don’t. It is always evolving and changing. One change of late was that Facebook and Twitter has been unblocked for teachers. A surprising move, in my opinion, but I have a few suspicions as to why they did it.

Anyway, it is possible to get a website unblocked if you can provide a reasonably reason to the people (the Web Filter Unit) who are in charge of it all. The advantageous thing for the Unit is that they can unblock website access for single school, rather than a blank unblocking. Similarly, they can even control the years in the school (like, year 10 could but 7-9 couldn’t) that can access it.

Before I go much further with this, I should introduce my class and my school to the story. My year 9 class got their laptops this year. They were rather apathetic towards them because there is a culture in the school that devalues technology and values ‘chalk-and-talk’. It has its place, of course. But as we get further and further into the 21st century, that place is being greatly reduced. When I arrived at the school at the beginning of the year, I was shocked at the state of technology in the school – there simply wasn’t any!

I was taught to teach with technology, so that might make me a bit biased towards it. But I think that if you’re not even considering the various applications of technology to teaching (which is what my school was doing) then you are severely handicapping your teachers and your students. So, knowing that the year 9’s would be getting their laptops, I set out to make this class (out of all my classes) the most digital I could.

Once the year 9’s got their laptops, I instantly started up a class blog. I was familiar with blogging. It’s not a hard thing for students to engage with either. Similarly, the dynamics of the classroom all but dictated this would be the first thing we would do. I found, after a few weeks of having students do their work on the laptop, rather than written, that they were producing far more content with more depth to their answers and (where permitting) analysis.

It came to a point, though, that sharing the work was becoming problematic. First, they were sending me emails after every lesson to see if their answers were ‘correct’. Second, and something that had been going on from day one, they were hesitant to share their work with each other. People in teaching know that kids sharing work is an important aspect to learning. Being a selective class, they were quite hesitant to do it but they were very eager to get feedback and ticks of approval.

I made the blog and then made them all a deal: I would give them the feedback that they wanted so long as they posted their work on the blog. I would put up a post that would contain the work that we had covered/was homework and then  they would comment their answers. A very simple approach, but it was effective. The kids got over the fear of their peers reading their work and started posting  it up there.

I won’t go into the educational repurcussions of this and the benefits, etc. But, suffice to say, it has ended up being a great thing for the class. After the blog, I started then started to find ways to digitise the class further.

The next step: Get rid of paper.

Of course, anyone who remembers being in a classroom knows that you can never completely ‘do’ something. Someone will forget the one thing they need, or something will be broken. So, when I say I have been trying to get rid of paper, that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. But now, I can walk in with, say, 5 paper copies of what we will be doing instead of 30 that I would previously need.

This process wasn’t actually as hard as most people think it would be. I was already making my own worksheets. I do this for two reasons: It looks like you’re always busy (for brownie points) and it gives you better controll over what your kids are learning and what shape your lesson goes. That’s just my opinion, but it works for me.

So all I had to do, after realising that I already had the digital copies of worksheets (and other work) was find an effective way of distribution. Originally I had thought about emailing it  to students, but that idea was quickly shelved when I realised that (more often than not) I am still working on worksheets until five minutes before a lesson (and, yes, when I was still using paper copies, I would be grabbing them out of the photocopier on my way out to actually teach!). I then turned my mind to file sharing.

My first idea was to go with DropBox. I would have used this if it was unblocked by the DET filter and kids could install programs on their laptops. It isn’t unblocked and you can’t install, so I had to find a new approach.

I was alerted to a DropBox ‘alternative’ after Googling ‘DropBox alternative’. I actually found a website that provides educational alternative to all of the ‘major’ programs out there, which was helpful. But I was directed to a website called LiveBinder.

At LiveBinder, I could host files that could be downloaded directly. It works pretty much like a digital ringbinder. You have a set of tabs across the top, and then you organise your resources in them. My test run with it was NAPLAN. I had a lot of digital resources for NAPLAN that I didn’t want to print off for a few reasons. The first was that not all of them were important enough to. The second, some were very long (and, while I didn’t expect every kid to read long things online more than offline, I thought the top tier of kids would do it). But I generally believe in erring on the side of too much than not enough, so I uploaded all of my stuff to the LiveBinder for the class.

There were some lessons where we used the material on the LiveBinder. There were things on there that only a handful of people actually bothered to read (and they were the ones I expected to do that). All in all though, the file sharing approach was successful.

So, starting a new unit this week, I was in an excellent position to actually going completely digital. My kids were used to working on their laptosp or online. They had got into the habit of reading and critically evaluating each others’ work. And they we now able to get the worksheets and content delivered to them digitally. There was one more tool that I wanted to use.

A wiki.

Everyone knows what Wikipedia is. Ever since discovering it, I thought that it was the greatest development for online information building that would ever be made. And I have always harboured ideas about using it for teaching. I thought that now, more than ever, I could have a go at it. I would make it part of the assessment – building a wiki with pages that are parts of the overarching theme of our unit (which is humanism). The kids would be building their own individual articles on their laptops (using software provided to them, like OneNote), and then in groups would read and evaluate other’s individual articles to compose a final, group article. It has all the  good, meaty, educational good stuff in there. But I had one problem …

WikiSpaces, the best website available to everyone, was blocked for students.

This is where the story gets back to where I had started. I have been exchanging emails with the Web Filter Unit at the DET to get the site unblocked. When I first made my request to get the website unblocked, I was palmed off with an auto-reply saying that the website was available to teachers and not student. That was something I was aware of, but didn’t even address my issue. Then I got a human response saying that there were guidelines that I needed to follow. Again, something I was aware of and had adhered to. Then, finally, I got a third email from some high up (from the sounds of their title) and they said that I needed to email them my page so they could inspect it.

Now, while I was aware (and had even bothered to read!) the DET’s guidelines on using wikis, I had only thought about followed three of four of their extensive list of rules. Why? Because some of them are colossal waste of times for me and for other people. For example, my HT and my principal have to be walked through it. That’s something neither of them had the time for or the want for. They didn’t even like technology, so they were hardly going to pay attention. Similarly, students had to be completely anonymous. I understand that – but I was going to get them to just use their first name (anonymous enough for my liking). But, when I found out that my wiki was going to be assessed against the DET’s rules, I had to go back and make a whole lot of changes.

Did the changes help? Yeah, they probably did. And they probably made sure that the whole ‘experience’ was a bit better. But the amount of red tape to jump through just to get something like this done was so … bleh. Though, now that I’ve got in unblocked I can use it in the future.

Anyway, that’s my (small-scale) story about using technology in my teaching. There’s many more stories, and some amusing anecdotes to go with them, but I have run out of time to go into them.

Thomas.

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