Sunday, April 30, 2017

Virtual Field Trips with Google Expeditions

Do you know about Google Expeditions? Our district recently received a kit through a grant, allowing 30 students to follow their teacher to the ends of the earth. Google Expeditions is an app that turns 360 degree pictures into virtual field trips. Teachers can give a guided tour, highlighting points of interest while students experience new places. There are hundreds of locations already prepared for teachers to use with their classes, and it’s free through the Google Expedition app!

Today, my class had the opportunity to travel to the island of Borneo to study the ecological changes happening there as a result of deforestation. Sounds amazing, right? It was! This field trip was not only highly engaging, but it is also tightly aligned to our curricular goals. I planned this field trip as an introduction to our PBL incorporating current events, natural resources, and persuasive writing skills.

Before we went on the field trip, my class learned all about natural resources. We identified various resources, categorized renewable and nonrenewable examples, and realized our reliance upon them. The goal of our PBL is to further investigate current problems related to one of three natural resources. Once students become experts in their areas of study, they will create a persuasive product of their choice such as a song, public service announcement, or presentation to persuade their audience to take a specific action to preserve our natural resources.
Photo credit: Rachel Lamb

The field trip to Borneo allowed my students to experience the effects of deforestation. I was able to point out areas of interest, teach about the environment they were seeing, and pause their experience to allow for discussion. They were immersed in their learning far beyond what a picture or a teaching video could show.  They were shocked and genuinely concerned with the landscapes they witnessed and explored. Their reaction was so strong that there was a very natural transition to introducing our project, in which they were offered the opportunity to take action. My students ended our learning time today feeling empowered and motivated to continue our work on this project. Here’s what my students had to say about their virtual field trip experience:
  • “I went somewhere on a phone that I wouldn't have been able to go to in real life.”
  • “It’s like I was really there. The details were real! I could look around and explore Borneo.”
  • “I discovered new things and new places.”
  • “For a little while I was really standing in a rainforest today.”
  • “I could look all around me and control what I was seeing by moving my head.”

Photo credit: Rachel Lamb

With Google Expeditions, the world is literally at your fingertips. I’ve spent a few hours just exploring my own interests, and I can’t wait to use this tool again in the future. If you have a few devices, consider trying this with a small group of students. It would work well in a station rotation model of blended learning. You could use your face to face time with a small group to guide a tour that is connected to their online content.

My students were begging to take more field trips, and I’m dreaming of all the ways I can incorporate amazing locations and experiences into our curriculum units. We could visit a courthouse while studying Indiana government, tour the home of a famous poet during our poetry unit, experience a Native American celebration as we learn Indiana history, or explore the Tetons to better visualize the setting of our read aloud, Stone Fox.  

If you’ve used Google Expeditions, share your virtual field trip experience in the comments. I’m interested to hear how other teachers are using this great teaching tool!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Personalization and Universal Design for Learning

So far I feel pretty great about getting blended learning up and running in my class. My students are able to work independently and solve most of their own problems. I’m able to teach more rigorous lessons during my guided reading groups because students have already learned and practiced the skills during their online learning portion of the day. We really are off to a great start. So, what’s next?

As I consider the online content that I’ve created, I notice a few things. At the end of each online lesson, my students take a survey to give me feedback about parts of the lesson that were confusing, difficult, or just plain boring. They also share their favorite parts of the lesson so that I can design engaging content in the future. Not surprisingly, most students say that they like the video content and games, so I try to incorporate some of those elements in each lesson I create.

Beyond student feedback though, I’ve realized that my online content is pretty basic. Each student is completing the same content in the same way. Ideally, I’d like to create content that is more student centered. One benefit of blended learning is the ability to personalize learning for students, and I plan to focus future content creation around this concept.

What is Personalization?

Personalization is similar to the concept of differentiation in that students are learning the same content, but in different ways. With differentiation, the teacher controls the learning. She decides which students are doing what activities, how they will represent their learning, and when they will do these tasks. With personalized learning, the teacher creates the content, but each student makes learning decisions for themselves. Students are given the opportunity to choose how they will engage with content and represent their learning.  One benefit of personalization over differentiation is the increase in student agency, or a student’s ability to take initiative in their learning.  

According to Leila Meyer’s article The 4 Common Characteristics of Personalized Learning, personalization can take many different forms, but there are a few common characteristics, including: student ownership of their learning process, a focus on the learning process rather than big end-of-year tests, competency-based student progression, and anytime/anywhere learning. My next logical step is to move toward student ownership of their learning process.

Universal Design for Learning

The concept of personalization is closely tied to another topic I’ve been reading about called Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This 4 minute video does a great job explaining UDL.

The three main principles of UDL are:
  • Engagement- student learning is most meaningful when students are naturally motivated.
  • Representation- students learn in different ways, so it is imperative to provide multiple formats for student learning.
  • Action and Expression- students can demonstrate their learning of the same content in many different ways.

When I consider these three main principles as they relate to blended learning and creating online content, it all boils down to student choice.  As much as possible, students should have the ability to choose the content they will be studying- allowing for maximum engagement. While that is not always an option, giving students choice whenever possible is best. It is also important to provide multiple pathways for students to learn the content and then express their understanding.  

Consider my students here. They have very different preferences for learning and expression. UDL would suggest providing paths for all these learners to find the best possible success.
These girls prefer auditory learning. They like hearing instruction and
expressing their learning through verbal explanations.

My students here are visual learners. The need to see models,
and they prefer to show examples of their learning.

Written expression is a strength for these learners. They have very strong
vocabulary skills, and they enjoy being challenged through writing. 

Designing Personalized Content Using UDL

My next step in content creation will be adding student choice into the lessons I’m creating. I will most likely continue to have my class work on the same lesson, because I just don’t have enough content created yet to branch out in that way. While they are working on the same content, though, I will design lessons in such a way that students can choose their learning path through the UDL principles of representation and action/expression.

The principle of representation focuses around giving student multiple ways to engage with and learn the content. I can see my online lessons giving students multiple resources to use and having them choose a certain number to engage with. These resources could be teacher made videos, online content, teaching charts, songs, online books, infographics, interactive images, etc.

The principle of action and expression promotes student freedom in showing what they have learned. Students could express their understanding of the content by simply writing or solving simple problems, making an audio or visual recording explaining what they learned, creating a teaching tool for other students, writing a book, or creating an infographic.

Universal Design for Learning Example

A few months back I created a digital project based learning resource for my students in which they are tasked with the challenge of persuading a chosen audience to take action in conserving and protecting our natural resources.  After learning about UDL and personalization, I think my resource shows all three principles of UDL:
  • Engagement- students are tasked with persuading others about a real problem. They can choose the topic they wish to learn about from a provided list.
  • Representation- students choose from videos, websites, and online books to learn the content.
  • Action and Expression- students choose from a variety of projects to complete. They can write a song, make a TV public service announcement, create a radio commercial, write a letter, design a poster, or give a presentation aimed at an audience of their choice.

As I go forward, I would like to not only incorporate opportunities for students to choose their learning path in everyday online lessons, but also create more projects like this one to incorporate into our units.

Do you have ideas or strategies to increase student choice in learning? Share them in the comments here. I’d love to hear your ideas and try to incorporate them into my classroom!  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Secret of Blended Learning

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know there are many benefits to using a blended learning model with your students. It increases student engagements, allows students to work at their own pace, and encourages students to take a more active role in their learning experience. See my post The Student Experience: Blended Learning to hear what students had to say about the online learning portion of our blended learning model used at Tech Camp.

Lately I’ve been working to implement blended learning with my whole class. After taking some time to reflect on our progress this week, I’ve realized some pretty amazing benefits of blended learning that I hadn’t considered yet.

Using Blended Learning to Problem Solve

In their book Blended, Michael Horn and Heather Staker explain that blended learning should be used to address a specific problem so that it has a direct purpose, direction, and clear goals. I’ve chosen to use blended learning to address a particular recurring problem during my guided reading groups.

I don’t know about you, but over the years I have tried multiple strategies to increase student learning during independent reading time. I’ve tried centers, response journals, partner work, book clubs, reward systems...does this sound familiar? I’ve even switched back and forth between these ideas in order to keep students engaged and learning.

These strategies helped most of my students stay engaged during their independent learning, but I need a solution for my students who have to work independently for our entire guided reading block on some days. It’s just not ideal. Believe me, If I could, I would have every student working with a teacher everyday to improve reading skills, but it’s just not possible. Or is it?

My Discovery

Here’s the secret that I discovered while implementing blended learning with my students during reading groups: I’ve basically cloned myself and created my own digital co-teacher. Seriously, alert the media. It’s a big deal.

Rather than having my students read and respond independently as part of our guided reading group time, they are now engaged with my digital co-teacher, participating in meaningful learning that I created for them. Better yet, communication with my digital co-teacher is a snap because I can easily see exactly what each student is working on, who is struggling with certain skills, and who needs enrichment.  

I want all of my students to learn at a high level. Like many of my colleagues, I continually struggled to find time to teach highly rigorous lessons because my students needed more support mastering the skills on a more basic level. It was frustrating. Now, I can use blended learning to solve this problem. My digital co-teacher can teach these reading skills while I go deeper and help students apply those skills in more challenging ways during our face-to-face time.

My face-to-face time with students has become so much more productive and engaging for them. Believe it or not, they want to learn and practice skills in rigorous ways, especially when I’m right there to help them. Before, my face-to-face time with students was admittedly a bit predictable. That’s a nice way of saying it was a little boring. We would read and practice skills, but it was pretty basic. Now my students are excited to come to my reading table and see what challenge I have for them.

Blended Learning as a Pre-Teaching Tool

This is my friend Rachel Lamb. She’s a special education teacher at my school. I have the amazing opportunity to co-teach with her throughout the day. Lately she has tried out blended learning with one of her reading groups. She decided to create online content to pre-teach her students for an upcoming fourth grade unit. Immediately following their online learning, Rachel meets with her students to support and reinforce the topics they just learned. Her goal is to prepare her students so that they will be more successful during whole group instruction.

Here is what she has to say about her experience with blended learning so far, “I believe that we are reteaching so many skills throughout the year that my students always feel behind. With pre-teaching through blended learning, my students will be able to participate in the whole group instruction more, and they will better understand grade-level content. I haven’t seen the direct impact blended learning has made on the grade level standards yet, but I have seen an impact in my time with my reading group. My students are more confident with answering questions, and less direct teaching and modeling has to occur.”
Are you looking for a way to improve your guided reading groups? I highly recommend giving blended learning a try. Rachel and I have found it to be effective in two different, but equally important ways. Whether you are wanting to find time to implement more rigorous instruction, or you are looking to better prepare your students for whole group instruction, blended learning could be a solution for you.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Creating Online Content: Advice from a Pro

If you are a classroom teacher in a traditional school wanting to implement blended learning, chances are that you are going to need to develop online content. Unfortunately, it turns out that simply converting even your best face-to-face lessons and activities into online formats doesn’t guarantee great online learning for students. So what does it take to create meaningful online content for your students? I’ve recently spent some time planning, teaching, and learning with Michele Eaton, Director of Virtual and Blended Learning for the M.S.D. of Wayne Township. In this post, I will share what she has taught me about creating online content.

First, though, I’d like to introduce you to Michele. She focuses on staff and course development for Achieve Virtual Education Academy and provides leadership for the district's blended initiatives.  Michele is a CoSN CETL and 2016 Next Generation Leader, President of the ISTE Online Learning Network, IUPUI online instructor, Conference Chair for the Indiana Connected Educators organization, and moderator for the #INeLearn chat. You can follow her on Twitter at @micheeaton.

Online Vs. Print Reading

It’s important to realize that we read online text much differently than we read printed text. In general, individuals skim much more online than they do in print sources. Of course we want students reading more, not less, but the fact of the matter is online readers are more likely to search text for needed information and only read relevant selections based on their needs. We must keep this in mind when designing content for students.

Most teachers lesson plan by preparing text resources before finding visual media to supplement and support the lesson’s objectives. When creating online content, though, Michele recommends designing visual media first. Students will naturally look at images, infographics, videos, and animations before they read text. Many students are taught to do this from a young age when they are prompted to “take a picture walk” and make meaning from visual media before reading a story. By planning the visual content first, we can then fill in with text and avoid redundancy.

A word of caution: while visual media is an important aspect of student engagement and lesson design, it must be meaningful. When we add in extra media content just because it looks good, we are actually distracting our students from our learning objectives.

Basic Design and Information Overload

Have you recently visited a website that was visually obnoxious? Maybe there was too much writing or the color scheme made it difficult to concentrate on the text. With the wonders of Google, it’s pretty easy to simply leave an overwhelming site and find a similar resource that is visually pleasing. The last thing I want my students doing is skipping over content I’ve created because they feel overwhelmed by it. Consider these tips regarding presentation.

Designing the look of your online content doesn’t need to be difficult-in fact, it should be simple and consistent. Text should be clean and easy to read, using no more than two fonts. As fun as colored text looks, it actually causes eye strain, so keep the bulk of your text black. Too many colors also leads to distraction, so use no more than three colors for your overall theme.

As learners, there is a limit to the amount of information we can process at one time. That’s why teachers break up learning and reading tasks into manageable chunks for their learners. Online content should be designed to aid student learning in the same way. Rather than filling one space with all of the learning content, spread it out into reasonable pieces. This allows students to easily navigate through the content we provide for them. They can easily locate the information they need, and they are less likely to become overwhelmed by too much text.   

A good amount of white space helps students when learning online. It minimizes distractions, allowing students to focus on the content. It also increases legibility. Students can easily read the content, helping them to fully process the information they are learning. For these reasons, it’s best to avoid overfilling your learning space.

Interaction is Key

Let’s be honest. A boring teaching video is no more engaging than a boring lecture. In fact, it’s probably less engaging because students can simply skip forward. They don’t really have that option when we are face-to-face. When learning online, students should have an opportunity to interact with each piece of content that you provide for them.

Interaction engages students in their learning in a way that goes beyond the mindset of clicking through content and guessing on assignments. It also increases student accountability and allows teachers to catch student misunderstandings and provide necessary support. There are three main ways to ensure interaction.

Students can interact directly with the content you have created. If you are incorporating a teaching video, consider using PlayPosit to modify the content. It allows you to embed questions directly into video content, requiring students to respond before resuming the video. There are many interactive learning games that you can also incorporate. Students can take a screenshot of their score at the end and submit it to ensure student participation. Thinglink is another great resource. It allows you to make images interactive for students.

Students can also interact with other students when learning online. Discussion posts are an easy way for students to share their learning, question one another, and provide feedback for their peers. If you are using Google docs with your students, you can easily assign groups and have students collaborate directly within projects and assignments you create. Another interesting idea is collaborative note taking. Essentially, students are assigned a section of notes to complete within a shared document. Students share ideas and support one another as they learn their content. See this great blog post from Shake Up Learning for examples.

Finally, students interact directly with the teacher. The most direct way to do this is for teachers to provide feedback for online learning. Most importantly, though, teachers should be extremely intentional about using actionable data from online learning to influence face-to-face time with students. This is a great way for teachers to provide reteaching and enrichment for students.

A Note on Delivering Content

There are some really great learning management systems (LMS) out there that allow teachers to easily design and deliver content to their students. If you have access to a LMS through your district, take some time to learn how to use it. A little bit of invested time here can go a long way in creating online content.

If you don’t have access to a LMS, consider using HyperDocs to deliver your content to your students. A HyperDoc is an online document where you link your lesson content for students to access. All you need is Google docs or Office 365. The Hyperdoc Girls have a great book, The HyperDoc Handbook, or you can see their website for tips on delivering your online content this way. They even have templates you can copy and customize for free!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Planning for Success

Tech Camp was really great! I am so pleased with how the students responded to blended learning (see my posts So Much More Than Screen Time and The Student Experience for specifics). My next step is implementing blended learning for the last 9 weeks of school with my whole class. Like Tech camp, I will use the station rotation model of blended learning during our guided reading groups.

A large part of our success implementing blended learning during Tech Camp is that we had one teacher for each of our stations. That means that there was always a teacher available to assist students with their online learning. When students didn’t have the hang of navigating our online lessons or they had trouble with internet connectivity, there was a very knowledgeable teacher available to troubleshoot and teach students how to solve their problem independently in the future. At the same time, I was able to teach face-to-face guided reading groups with little or no interruption.

Unfortunately, I won’t have the same support during our guided reading groups for the last 9 weeks of school. I’ve given considerable thought to how I am going to support my whole class as we begin blended learning.

Taking Stock

Up to this point, my class has had limited practice using our learning management system (LMS) because I have been delivering most of our content through Google Classroom. I’ve created our blended learning content in our LMS because it has better features for what I am wanting to do. So one challenge I will face is my students' lack of experience with our LMS. Another challenge will be that I won’t be able to constantly see what my students are working on because, ideally, I’ll be teaching a small group.

At the same time, I have quite a few factors in my favor. Since this is the spring semester, my students have a clear understanding of my expectations for Chromebook use. Moreover, they are proficient in using Google docs. They are also extremely motivated to use their Chromebooks for learning tasks. Most importantly, 8 of my students attended Tech Camp, meaning I have 8 students capable of helping others to be successful.
Photo credit: Michele Eaton

Model, Reinforce, Repeat

In order to set up my students for success, I plan to provide direct support during our reading groups for the full first week of blended learning. This means that I won’t actually be teaching a small group. Instead, I’ll be modeling how to navigate our online lessons and teaching students the difference between online learning and online playing.

I also plan to give daily feedback for online work submissions in order to reinforce quality work. I also plan to project exemplary work submitted by students to motivate students to do their best. Toward the end of the week, I hope to be able to release my students to be independent while I conference with individuals or small groups of students and ask for their feedback for our online learning material. I’ll use this feedback for future content development.  

Help Wanted: Tech Support

During the second week, I plan to start teaching my guided reading groups again. I really want to protect my teaching time with my groups, but I know that independent students will eventually run into technical issues and need support during this time. This is why it is ideal to have another adult, such as a paraprofessional, available when implementing blended learning. Since all of our paraprofessionals are teaching small groups during this time, I will just have to problem solve in other ways.  
Photo credit: Michele Eaton

I have two ideas that I’m considering for this issue. First, if I have two or three students who have really found success in online problem solving, I may give them the class job of being tech support. Students with online issues would be required to check in with one tech support student before requesting my help.

There is also a chat feature within our LMS. I’m considering using that as my second line of defense. If the help desk student is unable to solve a problem, students can message me and I can attempt to help them while still teaching my group. If I get multiple messages with the same issue, I know that further intervention is needed.

The Problem of Off Task Behavior

Sooner or later, I know that I will run into the problem of finding a student who is using their Chromebook to play a game rather than complete their online learning lessons. It happened once during Tech Camp, and we were only together for a week, so I know to expect it with my whole class. During Tech Camp, we simply moved that student so we could always see his screen and our problem was solved.

If this issue arises, my first step will be having that student use one of two Chromebox stations I have set up. The larger screens face my reading table, so it will be easy for me to see what they are working on. When that student is ready to use their Chromebook again, I will partner them with a reliable student who can notify me of any problems. I’ve also thought about creating an online lesson specifically for reinforcing my Chromebook expectations. I could require students to complete the lesson before they were allowed to work independently again.

One consequence I won’t be using is completely taking away a student’s Chromebook or online access. It just doesn’t make much sense to me, especially when that is how a student will access our lesson content. Instead, I plan to take steps to reinforce positive digital citizenship and responsibility, because my students will need these skills for the rest of their lives.

Plan B

Sometimes Plan A falls apart. Five students forget to charge their Chromebooks the night before. The Internet won’t work. State testing affects our guided reading time. My baby is sick and I can’t be there to support my students. These things are going to happen, no doubt. There will always be challenges.

The best solution is to plan ahead, have realistic expectations, and be as flexible as possible. I’ll just have my students plug in and sit in a different spot when their Chromebooks aren’t charged. We will have to go back to our read and respond system from before if we can’t get connected to the internet. We will adjust our reading group time as much as possible during our testing window. When my kiddo is sick, I’ll just have my substitute choose what they are most comfortable with, either monitoring online learning or teaching small groups. I will cultivate a classroom culture of flexibility and problem solving. Any day that we can make it work will be a success, and I’ll celebrate those days.