Body Systems VoiceThreads by my G7 Science Class

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“Joining Forces in Purposeful Work: the Legacy of Student Contribution” – Alan November

November describes two history teachers Michael and Garth who over the years have worked with their classes to produce an online history wiki textbook.  The two classes (in different schools) both contribute, as well as other visitors who come upon the site and have something to say.  I’m still a little confused about whether Michael and Garth actually directly teach the students any history content which the students then record, or whether they simply pointed them in the right directions and kept an eye on progress….

I don’t think I’ll be doing anything revolutionary like creating an online textbook, but with two classes last week I tried out using Googledocs to produce different sections of a collaborative summary/revision guide.  This was most successful as a class activity, rather than as homework because sometimes students within the small group working on a section at home didn’t carry their weight and left it up to others, whereas in class everyone was actively working on it.  It was much faster to produce than expected, and I was able to check it for accuracy and add in extra information afterwards.  A weaker student told me later that he felt more confident about using it for personal review, since all of the key points were addressed, and had been checked by me.  (I was very prescriptive in my instructions, that students must include all keywords and learning outcomes, as well as any interesting additional information.)

November quotes Garth:

“The process of education is collaboration.  The idea of school should be collaboration and communication with people that are different from you and see the world with different eyes.”

I was inspired to contact some of my ex-colleagues in the UK, as well as my brother in law to collaborate in a small way with my g7 science project.  The students are making VoiceThreads on the human body systems.  They will finish them at the beginning of this week, so telling them on Monday that they’ll have students viewing and commenting from England should some extra good motivation.  We’ll see!

Made in Taiwan…

… viewed and commented in the UK.

For those signed up to VoiceThread, here’s a quick taster about AIDS and HIV which a couple of students made during “sandbox time” before starting the bigger body systems project.

AIDS and HIV mini VoiceThread

Images:  Can’t work out how to get them to go alongside each other…. but at least managed to get the image up using the URLs.  Thanks for the instructions, Stacey!

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“The Student as Global Communicator and Collaborator” – Alan November

In this chapter, November expounds the idea of teaching students global empathy.  His first piece of advice is a warning about the use of online searches.  The second is a recommendation of Skype as a classroom tool for collaboration or research.

November had previously introduced the Google Advanced Search engine for narrowing searches to particular domains, or time intervals in order to weed out unreliable or out of date information.  Here he gives a warning that when not used smartly, online searches, rather than expanding our perspectives, may reinforce our existing viewpoints.  The reason why is that Google’s algorithms remember our past search history and use this information as well as our IP address to personalize new searches so that results are more “relevant” to our interests.  Thus, two people searching the same word on different machines may yield very different results.  Of course in some situations this is very useful, but if we are looking for new information or trying to learn about other points of view then we don’t want a search which is biased towards our past search results.  November doesn’t give too many practical tips, apart from repeating his suggestion of using the  site:  command (e.g. will yield only results from the websites of British schools).   The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) manages a Root Zone database for domain codes.  As an aside, I discovered that China, Taiwan, India, Singapore, Thailand and some other countries have codes in English as well as their own script, e.g.  .cn and  .中國 for China.  So http://南昌大學.中國/ and will both lead me to the same website for Nanchang University.

Now to the use of Skype.  November makes helpful suggestions of various applications such as: interviewing specialists e.g. authors, scientists; for language exchange with international students; for a collaborative project; for presentation to a wider audience.  He recommends the ePals website for locating a partner school.  I can see how these would be brilliant for social sciences, modern foreign languages, language arts and science classes.  As for how I could use it in a maths classroom: perhaps communicating with other students who are studying the same topic, or preparing for the same exam?  I’m not sure if I’ll do this any time soon, but it is good to keep in mind.  It could certainly be a fun way to collaborate with ex-colleagues.

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Other sources of Creative Commons images

Students in my G7 Science class are gathering information to produce presentations about the various body systems (e.g. respiratory system, lymphatic system, integumentary system).  I have required them to use only images that have a “Creative Commons” license and introduced them to the Compfight website which contains images from Flickr.  Although it has a wide variety of images, many students have struggled to find relevant pictures for their specific needs.  After some searching, I discovered more suggestions for sourcing licensed pictures in Richard Byrne’s Free Technology for Teachers blog.

The easiest seems to be using Google Advanced Image Search, and filtering according to usage rights: “free to use, share or modify”.  It is similar to the Google Advanced Search mentioned in my blog below.

These are the images yielded from searching “respiratory system” on Compfight, with a CC filter.  Not much when you remember that those above the line are stock images that you have to pay for.

respiratory system compfight search

These are the images yielded from searching on Google Advanced Image Search.  Much more variety.  When I clicked and chose “visit page” or “view original image” I was able to find licensing information.  All those I checked did have the correct CC license.

respiratory system google advanced image search

Can anyone tell me how to get those images to show on my blog rather than being a link??

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Becoming a more savvy searcher

“If we only teach one skill to prepare our students to survive in a web-based world, it should be that of critical thinking in the analysis of online information.”  Alan November, “Who Owns the Learning?” page 62

When I assign independent research, it is often the case that students come up with the same few websites (whatever came up top in the Google search) or else Wikipedia (in either Chinese or English).  Students struggle to find the key information among the plethora of results, and few are critical of whether a website is indeed the most relevant for their purpose and whether the contents are up-to-date or reliable.  November advises we guide students to consider three aspects when examining information online.  Firstly, purpose: why is it there?  To influence voters?  To sell a product?  To disseminate research?  Secondly, author: who wrote it?  Are they reliable?  Are they an expert in that field?  Thirdly, place: what is the domain name (.gov, .edu, .com, .org, .net)?  What country does the site come from?

How can I support my students to wade through the wealth of information available online, to weed out the junk, and to home in on the useful?  November gives a couple of practical tips for how to become a more savvy searcher.  The first is to use Google Advanced Search, rather than the basic version.  This gives options for restricting the domain name, searching sites from a specific country, narrowing to sites that have been recently updated, different “reading levels”, different languages, and using AND, OR and NOT ensure the inclusion or avoidance of certain words or phrases.  Secondly is how to easily create your own Google-powered narrowed Custom Search engine by specifying domain names or specific websites that can be searched, and cutting out all others.   The new search engine will come with its own URL which can be pinned on to Moodle, ready for students to use.

I’d definitely like to try out the custom search engine at some point.  However as a start, next time I assign personal research I will definitely take a few minutes to discuss the key aspects of purpose, author and place, and give students a quick run-down on how to use the Google Advanced Search.  This simple step should help them to start to think more critically about what they find online.


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“The Student as Scribe” – Alan November

In this chapter, November introduces the idea of delegating the role of scribe to one student per lesson.  Whilst others are free to make notes, this student has the responsibility of producing a full account of the work done in a particular lesson, which after checking by the teacher, will be available online to classmates.  I can see a few potential downsides to incorporating the work of student scribe in my classes, though they are not insurmountable.  The main is that students will just copy from the textbook, and not try to synthesize their own version.  This would seem to defeat the purpose, though if addressed in the context of plagiarism when the idea of student scribe is introduced I think it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, and may well be a good opportunity to deal with this serious subject which students often struggle with.  I also worry that weaker students may feel pressure or embarrassment at the thought of others judging their work, though this is assisted by the fact that the teacher will check it first.  Finally, I worry that students reading the notes may misunderstand their purpose.  If they view them as a revision tool rather than a detailed account of the entire lesson, they may struggle to distinguish the key points, and feel overwhelmed by the detail.  Students will need to be reminded that although they should understand all the content, they don’t need to memorize it all.

Despite these few of concerns, there do seem to be a great deal of advantages.  For a student who was absent, it’s a chance to see what they missed, rather than just asking a classmate and getting a brief verbal account.  It can also be a refresher for others either before the next class, or coming towards the end of the topic.  Finally, parents can read it to find out what their children have been learning, and may be able to more easily assist them with revision.  There are clearly good opportunities for differentiation: strong students can be stretched to find out extra information, and weaker students will have the chance to see models of good work.  Given the online nature of the tool, students can readily augment with relevant website links.  Finally, a cross-curricular aspect: I teach maths and science, but this will also give them a valuable chance to work on their literacy and IT skills.

November doesn’t suggest a time frame for when these notes would be available online, but obviously this would be critical.  One cannot expect students to get them up too quickly if they’re going to do a thorough job, but if the notes go up too slow, they’re no longer useful for absent students.  So far I’m not totally convinced about how I could implement this idea and manage it so that it is both thorough and timely enough to be a useful tool.  I am curious of whether anyone else has tried it in a content-rich secondary school context?

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Digital Footprints – help or hindrance?

  • Should you have a digital footprint as an international educator?  

First of all, what exactly is a “digital footprint”?

It’s basically a trail of my digital interactions.  This has many uses, an important ones being in target marketing, and building a “digital reputation”.  (source: Wikipedia)

Until recently, my immediate answer would be, no.  In many ways it’s not in my control, but where it is I’d prefer to keep my digital footprint as small as possible.  I like my own privacy, so for example, I don’t want anyone outside my circle of friends to look at my Facebook wall.  I find it creepy to think others might be looking at information about me.  I don’t worry a lot about identity theft, but it seems sensible to take precautions where possible, and avoid putting too much information in the public domain.  My sisters who work in industry and academia both have LinkedIn accounts.  In these fields of work networking is important, but as a classroom teacher I didn’t think I merited or needed a page.  Who would I put on it, anyway?!   However, maybe this attitude is over-cautious, or worse still, detrimental to my professional and personal growth.  William M. Ferriter’s article about Positive Digital Footprints made me realize that perhaps by hiding in this way, I’m missing valuable opportunities to show off my achievements or develop my interests beyond my direct contacts.

  • How would a digital footprint help or hinder you if you go looking for a new job?

Out of curiosity, I tried Googling my name.  Immediately there was a plethora of photos and articles about a 21-year old who plays on the GB Badminton Squad, and more about a London-based singer songwriter.  Not until the 15th page of Google links was there something that was actually about me, and this referred to a summer program I did in 2005 – hardly relevant now!  Likewise, LinkedIn shows profiles for 59 Sarah Milnes, many UK-based, but none of whom are me.

But does this matter?  According to results of a 2010 survey by social recruitment software company Jobvite the answer is a resounding YES.  Out of a sample of 600 firms, 92% responded that they currently use, or plan to use, social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to inform their recruitment decisions.  In the two years since this survey, these sites have grown even more in popularity, and I doubt prospective employers would let the opportunity for a wider impression of candidates pass by.  Imagine myself and another candidate, both unknown to the recruiter, apply for the same job and on paper look equally good.  If my name only yields photos of a 21 year old badminton player, whereas the other candidate has a blog showing examples of great work, and other links which show him/her in a positive light, who would be the smart choice?  Obviously not me!  I don’t think things are as quite cut and dry on this – personal recommendations can never be undervalued –  but it can’t but help to create a good online impression of yourself.

  • What are the implications for students and how should we be teaching them to have a positive digital footprint?

Patrick Green and Bob Helmer created a nice lesson called “Would You Hire You?” on Digital citizenship which I’ve passed to our school College Counsellor.  (These look like useful people to follow!)  As educators, we should encourage students to investigate what their digital footprint contains:  Google yourself.  Check your Facebook privacy settings (who do you want to be able to see this stuff?)  Get rid of the bad, in particular asking others to remove any unhelpful photos and certainly don’t put them up there yourself!  More importantly, take the chance to develop and promote yourself.  Make links with other people, learn more about things that interest you, and share your knowledge.  Get online and make yourself visible as someone worth giving a university place / scholarship / job to!

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“Who Owns the Learning?” – Alan November

In reading the first chapter of Alan November’s book, several points struck me.

Firstly, his warning about the technology infrastructure not being the central issue, but rather the means to make the learning possible.  I would like to think more deeply about how I can move myself along the SAMR model: from substitution to augmentation, modification and redefinition (using the technology to do a task that wouldn’t have been possible).  I don’t want to get overwhelmed by feeling like I need to try every tool, but rather find a tool that will support the learning that I want to happen.

The second, is about passing control to students to motivate their learning.  In my experience, I have often found that students learn best when my explanation is supplemented by one from their peers.  I have successfully used an activity I call “mini teachers” when reviewing a topic.  The responsibility is handed to selected students to act as mini teachers in small groups of 3-4, thus freeing me to go round the classroom to listen, assist, and question for understanding.  Finally, the “student” is then expected to explain to the class from the front what they have just learned.  Therefore, when I read November’s “Tutorial Designer” student job description of recording a tutorial for a problem, I was excited to see how I could develop my mini teacher idea, and extend it to make a product that struggling students could refer to again and again outside of the classroom, and not just during the ten minute mini teacher activity.

Finally, I was encouraged by his comparison that while in the traditional educational model learning was limited to the teacher’s knowledge, whereas now there is endless content available.  I’m not shy to say to a student “I don’t know the answer to that, ask me again tomorrow and I’ll find out for you”.  However, I can also pass the responsibility to them to research and feed back.  However, it is important that I also guide them for how to use and interpret the information they find, and how to know what is reliable.

I’m excited to hear more of November’s suggestions and philosophies!

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Coggle – Mind map tool

Just found a really simple mind map tool called Coggle on Richard Byrne‘s blog.  It is very quick and intuitive and you can sign in straight away with a Google account.  Like Google docs, you can invite others to view it, and edit it.  It can also be downloaded as a pdf or png document.  I’ve tried a couple of mind map tools in the past, and this one is much faster and simpler to use.  Have a go!

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Tom Barrett “Interesting Ways” – excellent ideas for using IT resources

I read a blog entry by Tom Barrett which suggests interesting ways of using many of the tools we were introduced to this weekend (Padlet, Wordle, Voicethread, Prezi, and also various Google tools).   I recommend browsing!

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