Thursday, January 31, 2013

No, Blackboard is NOT going away! Partnering Blackboard and Google Apps

Somebody out there is spreading a troubling rumor, and we wanted to address it before it gains any more momentum.

The rumor goes something like this:

"Now that the district has Google Apps/Docs/Drive/Sites in place, there is no need for Blackboard.  As a result, the district is going to do away with Blackboard in a cost saving measure."

Despite the inaccurate soothsaying of a few of our colleagues, Blackboard is NOT going away.  At least, not for the foreseeable future.  In the age of technology and educational change, nothing is guaranteed forever.  However, to be clear, there has been no discussion about the removal of Blackboard, or the shift to a different Learning Management System (LMS... and that's what Blackboard is).

Especially with conversations about Waukesha One and personalized learning spinning up, the need for structured digital platform (which is what an LMS like Blackboard provides to students and staff) has never been in greater need.  To be clear, Google Apps is NOT an LMS.

Additionally, with eAchieve coming into the fold with Waukesha' s Blackboard implementation, the value of a robust LMS solution that can support face-to-face, hybrid, and virtual instruction is critical.

Yes, there is a cost to Blackboard.  However, in a brief analysis of other vendor solutions, the core components of Blackboard are comparably priced to alternate solutions.

Those of you aware of Moodle as an LMS will argue that Moodle is a free solution.  To quote the SDW CIO, Steve Schlomann, "Moodle is free like a puppy is free."  There are hosting and support costs associated with Moodle.  Because it is not vendor owned/created, any professional support required will need to be contracted as well.  Those costs can add up in a hurry.  So, even "free" isn't free!


That said, the next question is apparent:
If we are going to have Google and Blackboard as a part of our ecosystem,  do the two systems work together?  If so, how?
The good news is that they CAN work together, and teachers across this district are doing it!  Imagine a world where a syllabus can be changed in Google Docs, or a handout, or a class list, or any other document shared with students/staff/parents, and the changes are immediately reflected in Blackboard -- no additional uploads, attachments, or work needed. No version control or confusion. Imagine students pulling a copy of a document directly from a drive folder, but navigating to that folder easily from a consistent link provided one time in Blackboard.

Dale Van Keuren focuses on seamlessly  integrating
technology into classroom practice on his blog,
Waukesha North Technology Corner.
Dale Van Keuren, Instructional Technology Integrator at North, has written a blog post in which he outlines the larger purpose for each system (Google and Blackboard), and he points out how they can function together cohesively.  Take a look.  "Google and Blackboard: Making them BFFs"

"There are two amazing tools that students and teachers in Waukesha have access that can enhance their classes...Blackboard and Google Apps for Education.  These two tools are critical for the success of learning in Waukesha.

But wait...don't they do the same thing?  How can I make them "play nice" together?  I mean I can share a Google Doc with a student or I can upload it to Blackboard...same thing different tool"



Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The e-Submission Insanity: Taking Control of Digitally Submitted Work -- Part 2

In our last article, we talked about the importance of crafting (and insisting upon) a naming strategy for digitally submitted work.  This alone can be a valuable management strategy, but staff can put other measures in place to maintain a sense of sanity as more student work is turned in online.

This post focuses on a Folder Sharing/structure solution within Google Drive.

The Folder Sharing Concept in Google Drive

One of the core truths in Google Drive is that when a folder is created in Drive, the "properties" set for that folder are transferred to any documents or files within that folder (unless otherwise specified).

"Properties" refers to a few key elements when a user clicks the "Share" button on a folder or document in Google Drive:

  • Whether that document is "Private," available to people within the domain, or open and available to the world, and
  • Who specifically is being invited to view, edit, and comment on the document
The Folder Sharing Concept, then, focuses on using this principle to eliminate later confusion/frustration as students create one folder, set the sharing and viewing properties properly once for that folder, and then simply place all course related work in that folder for the rest of the year.  This keeps an open line of communication between the student's course folder, and the teacher's access to that folder.

Setting Up Folder Sharing with Students

It is recommended that a teacher launch the Folder Sharing system with all of his/her students at a time when it makes sense to change fundamental operating procedures within the classroom.  Moving all students at once to this system will make the transition cleaner and more manageable for the instructor.  It also allows the classroom culture/expectations to shift at once.

Step 1:  Develop a clear folder naming practice and general sharing guidelines to achieve consistency
  • How do you want student folders to be labeled? (For student's organization, do more than just their name!  Especially if they have more than one teacher.)
    •  Last Name, First Name - Subject
    •  Last Name - Teacher Name
    • Last Name, First Name - Subject - Semester
  • Do you want folders inside of that folder (nested or sub folders)?
  • What level of sharing would you like students to give you?  Viewing?  Commenting?  Editing?
    • Editing is recommended...it gives you fullest access to the folders and files
Step 2:  Create a "Class Folder" for your class(es) in your Google Drive
  • Once students share a folder with you, it will benefit your efficiency to place those folders into a collective folder.  Name the folder with clear identifiers, though.  "American Lit - 2012 - Sem1"
Step 3:  Reserve a lab/cart/computers and have students create the folder as a class
  • While students can create this independently, it is worth the time and effort to be present to answer questions and to make sure the folder is set up properly the FIRST Time.
Step 4:  As students share the folder with you, check the properties and drag into your "Class Folder"
  • When the file arrives in your inbox, or in your Google Drive folder (look in "Shared with Me"), take a look at the properties to be certain they are set properly.  Then, simply drag the folder up into the proper "Class Folder" in your Google Drive.
    • You will not delete student access to the folder in dragging this into the "My Drive" section of Google Drive.  It simply makes it easier for the instructor to find like student folders.
Step 5:  Instruct students to place all work that is to be digitally submitted into that folder
  • Remember that all files within that folder will take on the "properties" of the folder, unless otherwise specified by the student.
  • Developing a file naming structure/code for the files in each folder will further assist instructors in efficiently assessing the work within that folder.

Tips to Teachers

While the system is fairly simple and easy to use, there are some strategies that will make this work more seamless.
  • Clear initial expectations will ease the student transition to a new turn-in model.  Avoid accepting paper versions of the work when possible if the expectation is primarily electronic submission.
  • Prior to using Google with students, determine if they have an active Google account with the district.  The easiest method is to have students attempt to log in.  Here are instructions for allowing students with active accounts to log in. 
  • Encourage students to share their folders with a parent/guardian as well.  
    • Even without a Google account, parents can view (and even comment/edit) the work.  Here's a link to an article explaining options for sharing with non-Google users.
  • Use commenting on docs shared with you to provide feedback.  Printing assignments and placing feedback on the printed copy defeats the purpose of e-submissions (and creates another step for you -- so much for efficiency gained).
  • Engage students in a discussion about the work using the discussion tool in Google Docs.
  • Check in often.  You'll be amazed at how quickly work piles up.  Even when it isn't due!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The e-Submission Insanity: Taking Control of Digitally Submitted Work -- Part 1

There are tradeoffs for everything.

The "paperless" world of electronically submitted assessments/homework is truly a gift for those of us who struggle to keep tabs on the zillion+ sheets of paper we collect each year.

Yet, the tradeoff is having to develop a new system for management of our digitally collected student work.  For many educators initially encountering Google Drive, or other collection tools for electronically submitted work, you may have this overwhelming feeling that your digital work environment is no more functional than a cluttered work space in the physical world.

Ready yourself for the good news!  By adopting a few simple strategies, and by training your students to use those strategies religiously, you can regain your own sanity and become far more efficient in collecting and providing feedback on digital assessments.


Developing a Consistent Naming Convention
For many teachers, the process of paper collection has become a carefully crafted venture,  At the very least, most teachers have a protocol for students when it comes to turning in physical papers.  Name on the upper right of the page.  Hour, period, and/or date just below that.  Top left margin has assignment name.  For many teachers, a similar naming/identification process has become the only way to keep tabs (and our sanity) on the flood of paperwork we consume regularly.

The movement to a digital collection platform will not shirk the need for a digital naming/identification equivalent. In fact, without identifying some sort consistent convention, and then STICKING TO IT, you may not be able to take advantage of some of the other niceties of digital collection (automatic time-stamping when assignments are collected, search and sort functions to easily find text within specific documents, and more).

The most beneficial naming convention in a digital platform is one that places the critical data in immediate view of the teacher without having to open the file/document to find the data.  Generally this is done best in the document's name.

One example of a properly named document might be:

Assignment Code  - Last Name, First Name - Assignment Title - Status Code

What's the strategy being employed here?  Well, remember, computers tend to align lists alphabetically.  Therefore, the most important data should be first -- it will make grading easier.
An example of a Google Drive folder when students have used a
a standard file naming convention to submit work.

What is an assignment code?
An assignment code is nothing more than a code you provide/communicate to students related to a specific assignment.  While it may not seem obvious why this would matter initially, when it comes time to assess the work, the assignments can be more easily sorted and grouped, allowing the instructor to grade like assignments in one consistent bunch.  Keeping it short and simple is key.  For this to work, the kids need to enter the code properly when they name the file for the first time.

Why Last Name, First Name?
The same that applied to assignment codes is also true here.  Computers sort lists alphabetically.  Therefore, it stands to reason that once a teacher has sorted the digitally turned-in homework by assignment, the next convenience would be to have that homework sorted alphabetically by last name.  This is, after all, the way that almost all gradebook programs will have students listed.  If an instructor has their browser window open on one half of the monitor, and their gradebook window open on the other half, it would be beneficial to be able to rely on accuracy between those two windows as the instructor enters feedback into the gradebook.  

Due to the fact that computers cannot easily sort singular lists with more than one qualifier (first sort by assignment name, then sort by last name), to make the grouped bunch of similar assignments appear in alphabetical order by last name, you need to teach students to enter Last Name, First Name.  It's really the only way to achieve the convenience you will grow to appreciate as a teacher.

Do they need an assignment title?
That's a call you need to make as an instructor.  With my training as a writing teacher, I believe that titles ground the work and give the student (and the audience) an indicator of the work they are about to write/read.  A title can just as easily be placed at the top of the paper, and for most students it will be (HARD to achieve that 3-4 pages without a healthy header and title at size 42 font).  It is a preference fro some, and a waste of space for others.  

What is a Status Code?
This is something that I implemented in my writing classrooms, out of both necessity and convenience. There are beneficial implications, though, for all classroom teachers.  

Ultimately, we want to provide timely feedback to students.  With your shiny new digital inbox (we'll talk about strategies for achieving this in a follow-up post), you are open for business 24/7.  That means kids can turn in work at any time.  While I wish that kids had perspective enough to realize that turning work in a week early, or at 2 am the night after the work was due to you, was grounds for them having to wait for a response, the second they hit "send" and deliver to you, they start their "teacher response" timers.  Some kids are more patient than others, but inevitably, they all have a shorter expectation of response time than the teacher has time to provide an immediate response.

This leads to one of two issues:
  1. The teacher is "under the gun" to provide prompt responses, so he/she is constantly opening files to see the status of the work (many kids will submit the work to you before it is done...we'll talk about that as well in a follow-up post).  Much of that work is incomplete, leading to teacher frustration, and/or wasted teacher time.  In this scenario, we've lost all of the efficiency of a digital turn-in system.
  2. Response time to student work is dramatically hampered because the teacher sets an arbitrary date for "review and response" to maintain sanity.  As a result, students fall into the same old habits of waiting until the last minute to complete work.  We've now lost momentum and enthusiasm for a more personalized, fluid turn-in system.  This system is truly no different than a system where students turn in work physically on the due date and await the teacher response.
A Status Code, is a code developed by the teacher to allow for simple communication between the student and teacher related to the "status" of the work.  For instance, in my classroom I used these codes:

  • Draft:  This meant that the student had not completed the work and was not awaiting my feedback as an instructor.  For me, this meant that I did not need to open that document and offer feedback at this time, unless the student communicated with me personally and asked for assistance.
  • Final:  This meant that the student had "completed" the work and was awaiting my feedback.  As soon as I saw "Final" in the title, I opened that document and began to comment and assess.  I did this even BEFORE official due dates, as the student was indicating he/she had submitted his/her best work at that time.
  • Graded:  I renamed the file "Graded" when I was finished offering feedback to the student.  It was an indication to the student that there was some level of feedback in the document for the student.  Even if I was sending them back to complete another draft with revisions, I indicated graded.  When the student switched the work back to "Draft," I knew that the student had accepted my comments and was going to try again.  Other students accepted the grade that I offered and elected not to revise, leaving the code "Graded."  
These aren't the only (or even the best) Status Codes.  I'm certain you'll come up with something more efficient and aimed at your specific purpose.  However, the time I alone saved in not having to open every student submitted file (only to be overwhelmingly disappointed that the work was still not complete) was worth the implementation of this expectation.

What if the students do not label their work properly?
Most students will have little trouble adapting to this expectation.  Many of them already live in a world where each instructor has a different expectation for how work is submitted -- this will carry on that tradition.  For the sake of student efficiency, consider developing a consistent naming convention in your department, or in your whole school.  The more teachers that have similar expectations, the more likely students are to fall into alignment with those expectations.

Sadly, some students will buck the system.  We know that.  At first, insist.  Communicate your expectations clearly and succinctly, share them with parents/guardians, and share them with your administrator (and colleagues).  A clear, reasonable system with the intent of providing timely feedback to students should be celebrated.  This is a positive classroom management strategy that becomes increasingly necessary in a digital world.  The adults need to understand the purpose, and it is likely they, too, will support you in implementing the system.

As always, you will have to flex for some students.  Be aware that some students are having their own struggles adapting organizational strategies to a digital world.  The most important factor in all of our work is student learning -- a rule or naming convention should never get in the way of a student demonstrating what they have learned.  Flex when you need to.  Getting 95% of the students on board with your system will make managing the unique cases more palatable.  


Friday, January 18, 2013

Waukesha One - Readying Your Building and Practice

Recently the School District of Waukesha internally announced four schools selected to be in the initial implementation (wave one) of Waukesha One, the district's branding of its emphasis on a personalized learning experiences for every student.

While the concept is a proposal still awaiting board approval, the announcement marks a key focus for the district -- tailoring instruction to the needs of every student.  Additionally, it is critical to understand that the personalization of learning, a core tenet of Waukesha One, is not restricted to the first schools that may be selected to receive technology to assist in this work.  Preparing your building and professional practice for customized learning began for all schools years ago, and continues as we gain a clearer vision of what personalized learning can/does look like.

A clear reverberation of this stated focus is centered around the logistics of making personalized learning both feasible and manageable for the learners and the instructors.  The infusion of technology into this model will be critical for the mass customization of learning.

In this transition, there are many elements of consideration a school staff and administrator must address as they work to personalize learning for all students -- the vision of Waukesha One.

Project RED, a non-profit organized to transform education through the exploration of instructional technology, has recently developed a series of webinars that administrators/staff members may wish to utilize to start the conversation specifically as it relates to the integration of technology into the Waukesha One personalized learning plan.

For teacher leaders, administrators, and staff members interested in exploring how to implement 1:1 technology to support personalized learning, take some time to explore the webinars.  While the webinars are not aimed specifically at Waukesha One, there are many valuable take-aways that can really fuel the focus on the critical elements of Waukesha One in your building and practice.

To view the webinars, visit our SDW professional  page Webinars for Waukesha One Implementation by Project RED.

As a reminder, if you are looking for professional development and training resources on some of the "big rocks" that the district has invested in, we encourage you to visit our SDW Online Professional Development Center.  A great resource to use for that any time, any place learning model we hope our staff and students will have an opportunity to utilize.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Advanced Google Search - Finding Reading Levels of Resources

I'm going to disturb and unsettle some Library Media Specialists here for a second (I'll redeem myself in a bit), so please stick with me.

Most people think they generally know how to search the web.  In fact, some of us think we are pretty good at searching the web and finding valuable resources.  However, when you look at the tricks  and tips most of us actually employ to complete those searches, it's actually pretty unimpressive and without much strategy.  Sadly, those unimpressive search strategies are the exact same strategies we "relay" to our students if educators don't take a more progressive view of systematic digital resource research.

The harsh reality is that most of our searches start with Google.  And so do most of our students.  While we may wish they started in databases (or at least proceeded to them in deeper research), they typically do not.  I challenge all of you who have the luxury (sadly it has become that in so many schools) of a Library Media Specialist available in your building to help you rethink that approach when teaching research to your students.  These folks are experts in this area and can really jump start some high quality ideas and lessons that will be invaluable to your students today and in the future.

Let's say, though, that we were to stick to Google alone.  Did you know that Google has an Advanced Search feature that really drills down into some focused and interesting results.

I'm going to let another Waukesha instructor, West's Mark Grunske, share his nifty little tip about using Google's Advanced Search to find appropriate resources on the Internet based upon the reading level.  As you visit Mark's blog, you'll see the details of how to do this.  Go and try it yourself.  And in doing so, you'll see lots of other Advanced Search options that may make you see how valuable having a little bit more systematic, advanced search strategies (even in Google) can be in finding the digital information you REALLY want!

From Mark Grunske's blog:

"This month's Google tip deals with finding appropriate readings for students at different reading levels........
When I first saw this trick, I immediately thought of all of our work in AO as well as the current leveling in Science and the similar changes coming to English and Social Studies............To search Google for sources sorted by reading level all you have to do is the following......."
Read the rest of the article at Mark's blog - Google, Gadgets, and Grunske - Reading Levels.


And again, visit your Library Media Specialists to start exploring how we can teach kids to be better "seekers" and "finders" of information.  In a world where everything is digital and the accessibility to information continually explodes, these critical skills are as an important as being able to read the resources once our students have found them.