What does personalized blended learning PD look like?

 

(Originally posted on Jun 17, 2014 on The Learning Accelerator’s Blog, BlendED Update)

Teacher Andrew Boan describes the customized training he created for colleagues in Reynoldsburg City Schools.

I am a teacher and technology integration coach at Waggoner Road Middle School in Reynoldsburg, OH, and schools in our district are increasingly transitioning to a blended learning environment. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to be part of a great Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) facilitated by Brian Greenberg from Silicon Schools Fundand Michael Horn from the Christensen Institute and sponsored in part by The Learning Accelerator. This free online course, which focused on blended learning in a K-12
setting, was a great experience and helped me develop a better sense of the strategies, models, and benefits of blended learning.

After the course ended, I was eager to find out when the next offering would be so I could share it with my colleagues at Waggoner Road Middle School. As the Technology Integration Coach of the school, I felt that the MOOC would be a great way to introduce blended learning to our staff members. When I founRCS Official Logod out that there wasn’t going to be an offering of the course any time in the near future, I decided to create my own course (using some of the materials from the MOOC) to help engage our teachers and administrators in a customized introduction to blended learning.

I decided to use Canvas (a flexible, open-source LMS developed by Instructure) to host the course. The original MOOC that I was a part of was facilitated through Coursera, and Canvas offered a similar interface as well as multiple other features that allowed me to make this a unique blended learning experience. Just as students in a blended learning environment should have control over the time, place, path or pace of their learning, participants in the course I developed would have control over each of these as well. As teachers learned more about blended learning, they were also experiencing a blended learning experience – from the perspective of the learner – firsthand.

The main topics of the course were divided into modules, which were composed of videos, quizzes, readings, discussions, and assignments revolving around a specific area of blended learning. As I was developing these modules on Canvas, the original lectuTLAre videos from the MOOC were published to Khan Academy, which simplified the process of including that content into my course. These videos provided much of the foundation of the course, and their public availability on Khan Academy made the process of integrating them into the course very successful. The videos that included experiences from different protagonist schools (Summit Public Schools, Navigator Schools, and KIPP LA) helped give concrete examples of different blended learning models to participants in the course to refer back to as needed.

Although some of the articles from the original MOOC were included in the course, I also integrated other content and readings that were more specific to our local professional community. I highlighted specific topics that were of greater interest to participants (student motivation, badging, instilling grit, etc.) in the course to make the experience more personalized for our staff. Also, I chose to include discussions and assignments that were much different than the ones in the original MOOC. Since I had the opportunity to meet with and assist the participants of the course on a daily basis, I felt as though I could adapt the course based on their feedback (both online and face-to-face).

I posted each module as the course progressed, and l gave loose deadlines for assignments to help participants stay on-track. This gave each participant some control over the path, place, time, or pace of completing each module. Those taking the course had to show mastery over the content of each topic (scoring 80% or above correct on each quiz) before they could move on in the course. Additionally, participants received badges after completing all of the activities in each module.

The final assignment for the course was a Blended Learning Implementation Plan. Each participant developed his/her own personalized plan for implementing blended learning into their teaching for the following school year. This included the chosen blended learning model, the selected instructional software and hardware that their students would be using, and how their roles as teachers (and the experiences of the students) would change as blended learning was implemented. Including this implementation plan into the curriculum for the course was another example of personalization for my colleagues, as we are transitioning to a more fully blended learning environment for the next school year with 1:1 Chromebooks for our students.

Overall, the blended learning course was a great example of how high-quality professional development can be created and facilitated within a professional learning community. Participants in the course not only gained a better understanding of the concept of blended learning, but also had a chance to experience learning in a blended setting themselves. We will be using Canvas this coming year as a platform to develop courses for our middle school students, and having the experience with the system from a student perspective will help make the implementation even more successful.

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LMS Showdown – Which Is The Best Fit?

Teachers, schools, districts, and higher ed institutions have a wide range of platforms to use as their online “home base” for their students.  Companies like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Moodle, Edmodo, Schoology, and more recently Canvas by Instructure are all vying for the chance to become your Learning Management System (LMS) of choice.

LMS Smackdown

With all of these options (along with dozens more) available, how do teachers, administrators, and tech coordinators decide which platform is best for their students?  As a middle school educator and instructional coach, Here are some of the areas that need to be considered when evaluating which LMS is right for you:

1.  Straightforward Set-up and Maintainance

In order for any LMS to be successful, it needs to be fairly simple for teachers to set-up and maintain their classes/courses in the online environment.

While additional training and professional development is almost certainly required for any new system, the administrative interface of the LMS needs to be intuitive.  Teachers will not buy-in to the system if it is not user-friendly, and will be less likely to implement the system to its full potential if roadblocks are continuously encountered.

Additionally, maintaining class rosters and posting updated content for units and lessons needs to be as streamlined as possible.

2.  Simple Student Access and Navigation

Although the learning-curve for a teacher to learn any new LMS is integral to its adoption, the ability for a student to pick it up easily is exponentially more important.

Students need to be able to join groups/classes, access content, and submit assignments with as little interference as possible.  You will also want to keep in mind how content is presented from the student’s point of view (is it presented linearly in a “playlist,” as a page of multiple entry-points, etc.) and if it allows for students to easily explore related content on their own.

With this in mind, even the LMS with the most intuitive user interface may be challenging for students who are not as tech-savvy.  Whatever LMS you end up deciding to use, a system of support for students (and parents) needs to be set up.

Whether this is by a help-center or FAQ section developed by the LMS company or a series of lessons/screencasts that you develop yourself, students and parents need somewhere to turn when they have questions about the learning system.

3.  Ability to Embed Various Content 

Most learning management systems can easily embed video and images, but any other content (interactives, ebooks, etc.) need to be tested to make sure that they can be embedded into the system easily.

I have been using Edmodo this year with middle schoolers, and for the most part embedding content has been successful.  Some more complicated content did not successfully embed, and I had to post it as a link instead.  While this worked out for me, I had to preface this to students and remind them to read the post and follow the link accordingly.

4.  Connectivity to Student Information/Grading Systems

The biggest selling point of many learning systems and applications today is complete, back-end integration with student information databases and grading systems (such as Power School or Progress Book in the K-12 realm).

Having information about student enrollment, scheduling, and grades continuously connected and updated makes any learning application or program that much more effective.  It allows for almost instant feedback and communication between the instructor and the student/parent, and aids in the analysis of data to make important instructional decisions.

What is even more rare to find among web-based learning platforms is the ability to link all student performance and assessment data into one central hub.  While many companies are working toward this goal, finding a perfect combination of LMS with compatible learning tools and programs is somewhat challenging.

5.  Universal Hardware Compatibility

Depending on the hardware that you school or organization has adopted, this is crucial to successfully implementing an LMS.  While most of the popular systems tout cross-compatibility, there are some major differences in the user experiences of, say, the iPad app versus using the LMS on a desktop.

It is important that you know what features of your selected LMS will function of each hardware device that your learners may be using, and having foreknowledge of this before signing on to using one for a specified period of time will be very important.  Testing out the experience of the LMS on all possible devices – from the administrative and student perspective – is extremely important.

Next Steps – Further Investigation

Over the next few weeks, I will be spending time researching some of the best Learning Management Systems available to educators and blogging about them as  go.  I will be looking at the feature-sets of many LMS platforms and evaluating them in the mentioned categories, and will note any major features that set each apart from the rest.

If anyone would like to share their own thoughts or experiences about a specific LMS, I invite you to comment to this or any of the future posts.  Knowing exactly what you get from each system is very important, and getting a more complete picture of each available system will help educators and administrators make more informed choices for their students.

Also, any representatives from LMS companies are welcome to comment and leave their own feedback or add more information about the features that I may overlook.  You can also follow me @EdTechToolkit on twitter to let me know what you think and keep up to date on my venture through different learning management systems in the coming weeks.

Freerice.com – Feeding the Hungry, One Question at a Time

Teaching basic vocabulary and math skills to today’s students can be challenging at times, and remediation for students who are struggling can be overwhelming.  One extremely valuable tool available for teachers and students is Freerice.com, a non-profit website that supports the World Food Program.

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Answer a question right, and rice is donated to hungry people. It’s a win-win.

Freerice is a web-based trivia game that has two goals:

  1. Provide education to everyone for free.
  2. Help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.
Many different subjects of questions are available, most of which being leveled to accommodate any level of learner.

Many different subjects of questions are available, most of which being leveled to accommodate any level of learner.

While this charitable idea on its own is ingenious, it creates an intrinsic reward to those who participate that is very addictive – students always are wanting to answer more questions to keep donating more rice.  Additionally, teachers can create accounts for their students and have them join class groups, where goals can be set and class tallies of rice can be made to see how much rice the entire class has donated over time.

Many different subjects are available to answer questions on, including English vocabulary, basic math skills, geography skills, and foreign languages, with more subjects being added continuously.  What’s more, many of the subjects have the option to change the level of difficulty as you are answering questions, which allows you to individualize this for each student based on his/her needs.

If the content is too easy for the student, the site will gradually increase their level as they answer questions.  If the questions prove to be more challenging, it will alter the difficulty as well.  This is a godsend for teachers who instruct groups of students at varying learning levels, tailoring the activity to meet the needs of all students.

Google Apps for Education – The Basics

As part of a training unit that I’ve been developing for some co-workers, I’ve put together this series of short short how-to screencasts to help even the least tech-savvy teacher breeze through Google Apps like a pro.

The first video gives an overview of how cloud-based storage works with Google Drive, walking through the basics of uploading files and sharing them with others. The following three videos demonstrates the basic functions of Google Docs, Google Presentations, and Google Forms.

Although these videos were created to show teachers how useful Google’s free web-based applications can be, anyone can benefit from these invaluable resources that Google has been so kind to offer us.

Enjoy! (and be sure to share these with others who you think would benefit from a little basic Google know-how)

Tagxedo – Word Clouds Evolved

ImageBack in the day (a few years ago, to be exact) I started using a word cloud generator (Wordle.net) to create engaging word clouds for my students in the classroom.  I thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread, and rightfully so – a program that could take a URL or a bunch of text and present the words in a new and engaging way for readers to make connections about the main ideas and details.  After a while, I drifted away from using Wordle, but recently I have rediscovered it in a new form – Tagxedo.

Very similar in theory to Wordle’s initial undertaking, Tagxedo can be used to show the frequency of words used in passages, articles, or websites by how large the word is in the cloud that is created.  But, unlike Wordle, Tagxedo allows the users to form the clouds into custom shapes from images.  Instead of just choosing between squared and rounded edges, the arrangement of the words can send a message in the image that is created by their presence and absence in the frame.

I look forward to using Tagxedo soon in my own classroom to hep teach main idea and theme, copying and pasting text from novels or articles and applying them to images that represent the essential information that the text is trying to portray.  This could be especially useful for assisting students who have a hard time recognizing this information without prompting; they could infer these details from the form that the words take.  

Any of you who have been using Tagxedo in your classroom, I’d love to hear your ideas on how it can engage your students.