Student Publishing, Blogging and Online Portfolios

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

 

This week I did a training session on student blogging and our WordPress Multisite installation. I prepared these notes and background readings beforehand, although we spent most the time talking about projects that teachers were already envisioning and ready to rollout (which is always more fun!).

First, I highly recommend Jeff Utecht’s “Blogs as Web-Based Portfolios” (PDF article) as a place to start. With that in mind, here are four examples (from other schools) of student blogging that I think highlight some possibilities.

Avogadro Salad: A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda

This is an example of one individual student’s blog. She’s included images and videos in her posts explaining her labs, experiments and concepts in Chemistry class. This site uses WordPress, which is a professional standard for building websites and blogs. Using WordPress has a lot of advantages, including a vast amount of control in the design and layout, plugins and themes which can expand the capacity of the site, and a global community of support and users. We host a WordPress server which can be used to build class or individual blogs using staff or student e-mail address and logins. Accounts are automatically synced with existing student accounts, so there’s no account generation to worry about.

Avogadro Salad - A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

Avogadro Salad – A Chemistry Blog by Sarah Almeda (10th Grade)

This site shows a few different features of WordPress which you can use when you think about your own class:

  • Comments are turned on. This means that outside viewers can comment on posts. We can customize sites so that comments are on, off, moderated or school users only.
  • She has a page as well as posts. WordPress has two different types of content: posts, which are chronological and are the default type of content. In addition, pages are meant to be more permanent (they never get pushed down by newer content). Common examples are an “About Me” page, “Important Resources,” or anything else that you think will be useful at any time.
  • Her page shows protected posts. These are posts which are marked private and need a password to access. This is a good way to have some posts be just between the student and teacher. While you wouldn’t want to do this with every post, there might be certain elements of a portfolio or student-led conference which shouldn’t be public.

Sarah’s full name is on this website. This is a little unusual for a student website, and not what I’d recommend as best practice. My personal suggestion and a common practice is to have students use their first names only. We set this as a default in WordPress, although students uploading their work to a digital portfolio may run in to trouble if their full names are on the work.

These posts are public. How many people access this site (and from where) depends on how it is shared and publicized, but these sites are searchable and accessible globally. Again, commenting can be restricted and individual posts can be private, but students are publishing their site for a real audience. Because of the public nature of the site, parent communication in advance goes a long way. I recommend sending a note to parents explaining what the blog is, why students are doing it, what personally identifiable information will be posted, and how they can subscribe to it or follow their student’s work. I’ve found that parent enthusiasm for being able to see their students’s work far outweighs concerns over public publishing.

Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

This is an example of a different style of blog where the class creates one as a group. In this model, you can designate students to all be authors, while you retain the editing capacity, or you can appoint one or many students to be editors as well.

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Charles Wright Academy 9th Grade Digital Citizenship

Writing online has some specific skillsets that you can embed into their work. These posts do a great job of demonstrating proper use of hyperlinks, for example– picking specific words or phrases which are supported by another webpage or external reference (instead of dropping the entire address into the text of the piece or the common “click here:”, which distract the reader and disrupt the flow of the writing). These posts use images to support their topics. Also, the “Scales of Justice” image is sourced, and from a site that provides images for free use. Proper use and sourcing of media is an important element of online publishing. We have lots of material to support this if you need help here.

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Comments and Responses at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

The “Lady Justice” article has 3 comments, all of which model good discussion by asking furthering questions and referencing specific points in the article. In each case, the author has responded to the comments showing more depth of thinking.

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Commenting Expectations at Charles Wright Academy Digital Citizenship

Notice that the footer outlines expectations for the comments, reinforcing that blogging and online discussion should have expectations for quality.

 

Current Events in American Studies

American Studies - Student Blog

American Studies – Student Blog

Like with most of these sites, this site has a counter which shows the amount of traffic that a site has earned. There are a variety of these kinds of widgets which can show total traffic, current views in real-time, a global map of where readers are located, or other similar data. Since part of the appeal of blogging is publishing for a global audience, it’s really powerful to be able to show the “real audience.” In addition, WordPress has some tracking built-in which can show traffic for specific posts to see which articles get the most attention. We can also set up Google Analytics, which provides an incredible range of data regarding visitors to a website.

Amoureux da la Nourriture and Soccer Reviews Today

Under WordPress, there are a wide range of plugins and themes available to change the look and features of the site. These two pages have the same content and are from the same class, but have two different themes applied. Any themes and plugins that you want to use on your site have to be installed by the site administrator (me), but a quick search for free WordPress themes shows the incredible range of styles and designs available for your or your students’ sites.

Shakespearean blogging assignment, Amoureux de la Nourriture

Shakespearean blogging assignment, “Amoureux de la Nourriture”

Shakespearean assignment, "Soccer Reviews Today"

Shakespearean assignment, “Soccer Reviews Today”

Especially if you have students set up individual sites, you’ll want an easy way to keep track of all posts and comments. One of the reasons that blogs are so appealing is that you as a reader can subscribe and have updates go to you automatically as they appear– you don’t have to actively look to see if there are updates. If you use an RSS reader such as Feedly (free account), you can subscribe to both posts and comments from each of your students’ blogs. This way, you can take a quick scan through all of the recent activity and see what’s happened on all of the blogs in one place.

 

When the LMS Won’t Budge: Project Management and PBL

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In many ways, a robust LMS is a boon to Project-Based Learning. Many limiters or barriers to PBL center around a teacher having to multitask management of groups needing different resources and support at varying points in time. By shifting many of the resource and check-in steps to an asynchronous/blended model, we can eliminate some of the friction points where multiple groups are vying for attention or need direct intervention. A teacher can load resources and materials into the LMS, for example, which groups can access at the appropriate time. The use of discussion threads and electronic submission can let groups work at their own pace and check-in at major stages as they reach them, while still having some unifying process that each group follows so that the teacher can keep up.

Where the LMS model breaks down for group project management is once groups leave the central “everybody must” stages. Do all groups have the same steps to their project? Should they? If all projects in a class are “on the same rails,” arriving at the same tasks in the same order (albeit at different times), what does this reveal about the degree of student planning and design in the project? From another perspective, if we want students to generate their own project design (with support, of course), and we allow enough freedom in the PBL design for students to envision an authentic outcome, won’t each group come up with a different task list? Here the LMS fails us– while many LMS’s (including Schoology, which we use) allow you to direct assignments to individuals or groups, this is a huge amount of work for teachers to enter an entire class’ worth of project groups and deadlines. To truly reflect a diverse Project-Based environment, we need a better scheduling/task management tool.

Read more

Stylus PDF Markup Apps for Win 8

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Some members of our iPad faculty have gotten very comfortable with marking up papers using Notability on the iPad. Those teachers who use electronic submission through our LMS and have experienced some success with Notability have been able to take full advantage of electronic submission and feedback– archiving, organization, and timely response to students, and easy organization for themselves. As the non-iPad faculty are now using Surfaces, many are asking for the same capacity within Windows 8. There is no Notability for Windows, but I ran a quick trial of four other PDF markup apps to find a suitable equivalent. I’m focusing solely on the use case of our teachers looking to download PDF papers from Schoology, comment upon them as quickly as possible and get them back to students. This obviously ignores a huge range of PDF markup features and is a limited case, but at this point our need is quite focused.

Drawboard PDF – $9.99 (3 day trial available)

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very reminiscent of OneNote.

Drawboard has an interface very similar to the Win 8 version of OneNote. Menu options are presented in a multi-level palette, which can take some getting used to if you’ve not seen it before (in, for example, OneNote). As I’ve been playing with OneNote for a few weeks now, it was totally natural for me to dive in, but I anticipate that it’ll raise an eyebrow or two if I give it to a complete Win 8 neophyte. As with eBooks or Kindle, you swipe horizontally to navigate the pages. It has the most features of any of these apps (recording and attaching sound, for example), thus the more layered interface and higher cost.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Multi-layer palette menu in Drawboard.

Drawboard was also the only tool of these to support using the trigger button on the stylus as an eraser– one of my personal favorite UI touches of the Win 8 stylus.

PDF Touch – 2.99

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything's immediately accessible. Where's "Erase?"

Far fewer tools in PDF Touch, but everything’s immediately accessible. Where’s “Erase?”

This is a much simpler interface, although much more limited. There’s no nuance to access here– the tools you see in the initial menu are what you get, although you can customize size, color and opacity of pens, for example. Use the navigation arrows on the side of the screen to click through each page.

While this was a 1-minute impression, I could not find an eraser, nor any way to remove previous marks. You can undo your last mark, but you cannot step further back than that. Also, the document autosaved, so when I tried to open it up in my next app, all of the marks were retained. I could have missed something very basic, but the inability to erase marks would be a non-starter for me.

Xodo – Free

Selecting tools in Xodo. You'll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Selecting tools in Xodo. You’ll do this a lot if you want to use anything besides the pen.

Xodo gives you the pen tool by default, and allows other tools to be accessed by the edit menu. The input defaults back to the pen tool after every mark, though, which makes highlighting inefficient. In other words, if you were to highlight two separate words, the tool defaults to the pen when you lift up the stylus– you have to reselect the highlighter to continue using it.

Perfect PDF - 2.99 (2 day trial available)

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

Markup tools are a couple of levels deep in the interface.

This is the only interface with vertical scrolling. I found the interface here a bit non-intuitive for our purposes and desire to get to markup as quickly as possible– pen and markup tools are two layers deep in the menu. While that may make sense for a generic PDF reader, it’s a bit slower for our purposes. Out of the box, the pen and highlighter are set much too thick– they have to be reset to a smaller size under “Show Properties” to be useable for paper markup. The settings do persist to subsequent files, though– once reset, they don’t have to be configured each time. Also, a minor pet peeve– the eraser tool is a graphic-style eraser which erases specific points, not entire lines. In other words, if you circled a word and wanted to erase that circle, you have to retrace the circle with the eraser rather than simply touching some part of the shape.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.

Paint-style erase if you want to clear your marks.

Conclusions

Unfortunately, of these four apps it’s clear that you get what you pay for– my recommendation to our faculty looking for a quick and efficient paper markup tool would be Drawboard, even at $9.99. Frankly, thinking about the number of papers involved and the frequency with which our Humanities staff would be using this, I have no problem from the program perspective justifying the extra cost (Drawboard does offer volume licensing).

If the cost is too dear, my second choice out of these four would reluctantly be Perfect PDF. While the interface will be a touch slower than PDF Touch, the inability to erase marks in the latter program completely disqualifies it in my mind and I use the highlighter often enough that Xodo’s resetting after each stroke would slow me down more.

There are obviously myriad options for PDF markup in Windows, and this only includes some of the most common apps for Windows 8, not the desktop programs. Are there others that we should consider? What did we miss?

Uses of Technology to Enhance Formative Assessment and Differentiated Instruction

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Along with our Academic Dean Richard Kassissieh (@Kassissieh, KassBlog), I co-authored an article on the use of technology in formative assessment and differentiation. The article appears in the Fall 2014 edition of Curriculum in Context, the journal of the Washington State chapter of ASCD. The article describes a variety of ways in which our faculty are using formative assessment strategies to gather and analyze student performance as well as giving students opportunities to engage with content and skills at a variety of levels.

Freehand Thinking in French with Tablets

Posted at U Prep Technology Integration Exchange (UPTIE): Visual notetaking and vocabulary in French classes.

Students use Faculty-Designed Tool to Monitor Deadlines

cross-posted at U Prep Technology Integration Exchange. While I normally don’t post other teacher’s work here, I thought it appropriate so that I could discuss the “how” of the scripts, etc. All credit where it’s due, though– I wasn’t the “idea man” on this project at all.

University Prep students are busy, hard-working and are learning to balance involvement in academics, extra-curricular involvement and athletics. The U Prep faculty knows that helping students assume increasing responsibility for their work means that students must be able to advocate for their needs as well as to take on ownership of their schedule. Sometimes deadlines need to be moved for a variety of reasons, or sometimes things fall through the cracks, and teachers want to know why in order to form a teachable moment with a student when appropriate. Good teachers know that while it’s normal to miss a deadline on occasion, a student missing many deadlines can be an indication that the student needs some additional support.

What happens when a student starts missing assignments across multiple classes, though? Traditionally, teachers have had little opportunity to see when students may be running into trouble across multiple courses. The Math and English Departments are currently piloting a web-based system which allows students to submit a request for extension on an assignment or assessment. This request is sent to three parties: the originating student, the involved teacher, and the student’s advisor. As part of the request, the student explains the circumstances and proposes when they can get the work submitted.

Based on a form designed last year by math teacher Ian McInerney, the system has been running for several weeks in English and Math courses. The form is linked directly in the course’s Schoology page so that students can access it using their laptops or tablets. Rather than being reactive (after a deadline has been missed), the faculty hope that the use of this tool will encourage students to think and plan ahead, and use the request before a deadline arrives. The early results are encouraging here– of the 44 requests submitted so far, 35 were submitted either on or before the due date, suggesting that this tool is part of a students’ advance thinking rather than an after-the-fact reaction.

Faculty reaction thus far is positive, with advisors noting that the tool has prompted discussions with advisees around missed assignments as they develop. One advisor noted that seeing a couple of requests come in from the same advisee for different subjects enabled the advisor to have a talk with the student about the situation and resolve it holistically. While many of the uses of personal devices in school are around completing academic work, this is one example of how U Prep students use them to work on two other priorities of the device program: their organizational skills and communication.

 

Image-Enhanced Notes: Beyond “Just Typing” with Mobile Devices

Using OneNote, I took pictures and handwrote notes during an observation.

I recently observed a teacher lecturing for a period in order to watch students and their notetaking. In our Upper School, students are required to have a touchscreen device as well as a laptop– most often, either a Windows 8 hybrid device or combination of MacBook and iPad. Part of the reason that our faculty requested this was because of the difficulties in translating much of our academic content into keyboard-only notation (e.g. scientific and math notation). Having the touchscreen devices, then, should translate into students being able to include non-text (or at least non-QWERTY) input into their documents and products. At one point in the lecture, the teacher drew a graph on the board to illustrate a concept. I watched as the student in front of me switched out of Word (where she was taking notes) to a browser, did a quick Google image search for the concept being discussed, and pulled a generic (and similar) image off the web into her Word document. It was very fluid and competent use of her tools, but problematic from a content point-of-view: she had no time to analyze the source of the image for validity, and the image of the graph had completely different labels, axes and scale than the example that the teacher was referring to. Was that repurposed graph from online really helping her capture the content of the lecture?

Being able to include non-text input into notes is a major advantage of touchscreen devices. Advocates of paper-based notes frequently mention the importance of being able to use symbol notation to underscore important points, draw connections between topics, concept/cluster map, and illustrate visual points. All of these are possible with touchscreen devices using a hybrid notetaking approach that also includes the digital benefits of organizing/searching, linking to external resources, speed of typing and security of backup/storage. There are two ways that I’d suggest this student capture the graph on the board while typing her notes as she preferred, using the stylus and the camera.

The Pen Is Mightier

Reflecting the dual nature of our program (BYOD, laptop and touchscreen required), OneNote is a notetaking program which processes both typed and hand-written input. Students can organize notes into notebooks or categories and import documents or files. In short, it does what we need out of a notetaking tool, and has two major additional advantages for our program– it’s cross-platform, meaning our students can access it on Mac OS (no stylus input, obviously), Windows and iOS, and it can sync to OneDrive for cloud storage, meaning students with multiple devices can access their notes across all of them. Most importantly, it’s fast– while pen input is available in Word, switching from typing to pen input requires a couple of steps and is hard to do on the fly. If this student was taking her notes in OneNote rather than Word, she could have drawn the graph in question directly into her notes.

I believe that stylus input is the biggest advantages of OneNote at this point. I have been a huge Evernote fan for years and have collected volumes of my notes, writings and information in that program to this date, and I’m extremely disappointed with the lack of stylus support. As a result, I’ve been trying out OneNote this year to conduct all of my observations and am very excited about the capacity to produce hybrid notes both by typing and drawing as well as by handwriting all notes by freehand.

Pictures and 1,000s of Words

"Take a Photo" to insert a camera image while working in Notability (iOS).

“Take a Photo” to insert a camera image while working in Notability (iOS).

In our Middle School, students use iPads. While many have a stylus in their bags, most students don’t have them out and accessible during notetaking, and drawing graphs by hand while moving quickly may not be the most effective or efficient use for them. The other common way of getting images into a document involves using the camera present on mobile devices. The key here is to ensure that a student has a camera on the back of their device (facing the board). Students throughout our school using iPads, as well as most Upper School students on Windows hybrid machines, would have such a camera. Students using only their MacBooks for notetaking do not have the rear-facing camera (which eliminates the MacBook as a possibility for either of these methods).

Most apps or software in iOS or Windows 8 have the built-in capacity to insert an image from the camera. If our student were typing on her iPad or a Windows 8 hybrid device, she would just have to lift up the device and click the “Insert Image” button in her notetaking program (whichever that may be) to insert a capture of the image on the board as the teacher has drawn it. In this scenario, Evernote becomes an option again, as do other document apps.

Keep It Embedded

 

Using OneNote, I took pictures and handwrote notes during an observation.

Using OneNote, I took pictures and hand-wrote notes during an observation.

Conferences are full of well-meaning audience members taking pictures of every slide on their tablets and phones, and some students have tried taking pictures of every lecture slide as a notetaking strategy, only to find that they never revisit their Camera Roll to do anything with the assorted pictures. Similarly, it would be possible for this student to take a picture of the graph with her phone or tablet, send it to her MacBook later, and integrate it into her notes, or access it on the original device when it’s time to review/study, but this strategy seems doomed for failure of follow-through. I believe the key is to make sure that the image, whether hand-drawn or photographed, is embedded directly into the larger notes both for context and for ease of access later.

How About You?

Have you worked with your students on note-taking strategies that involve either mobile cameras or touchscreen input? What have your students found or reported about the experience? Please share in the comments below!

Using Guided Access to Minimize Distractions in iOS

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Mobile devices often end up loaded with apps designed to push notifications out to users. Games, social media, communication tools and personal organization tools like Calendar and Tasks are all designed to grab a user’s attention when something needs to be noted. When trying to concentrate on work, this becomes a constant distraction pulling away from the task on hand. It also creates a challenge for people trying to use these devices in presentation settings, as notifications about personal items such as communication or appointments can end up being shared on screen with a class or audience, and audio notifications can interrupt a presentation or playback of audio or video. Thankfully, there is a way to suppress all notifications when you’re using the iPad in a visible setting using Guided Access.

Guided Access is a feature of the iOS settings which allows you to do two major distraction-managing steps: eliminate notifications, and lock yourself into a particular app to help resist the pull of a quick game or social media checkin. Once the feature is activated, you can’t leave whichever app you’re in until you deactivate it (which can be configured with a passcode for more security). It also has a feature where you can specify parts of the screen that won’t receive any pop-ups. If you have a free app that pop-ups up with advertisements from time to time, for example, this could help eliminate those distractions. Finally, while it’s turned on, no aural nor visual notifications will occur from any other app. This includes:
  • Calendar
  • iMessage
  • Mail
  • Addictive Games of your Choice
  • Anything else which Pushes Notifications (Social Media apps, etc.)
You can, of course, disable many notifications permanently in the Settings app. Guided Access gives you the opportunity to temporarily disable them while you are sharing the iPad in the classroom setting and then have it go back to normal mode once you’re done, as well as to force yourself to stay in a mode such as writing, reading or drawing. To activate Guided Access, first turn it on in the Settings app under General->Accessibility->Guided Access. Here, you’ll specify if you want to use a passcode in order to turn it off once it’s activated. Once Guided Access has been activated, go to the app you plan on projecting or playing and triple-click the Home button. You’ll be notified that you’re in Guided Access mode (and, as a bonus for those of you projecting, you can lock the rotation here so that you don’t accidentally rotate your image while sharing). When it’s time to leave the app, triple-click the Home button again to disable Guided Access and return to normal use.
Parents and teachers may initially jump at the option to lock students into a particular app (an e-reader, notetaking app or school LMS, for example) by specifying a passcode which they control, then activating Guided Access before handing the device to the student. In this case, the student would then be unable to leave the app. There may be situations in which this is appropriate (test or controlled writing scenarios, for example), but most use cases for the iPad involve switching between multiple apps. In this case, the teacher or parent would have to enter the passcode every time a student wanted to switch between their electronic textbook, for example, and their notes program. Anybody planning on using Guided Access as a way to “put the blinders on” and focus on a single task should think through whether that single task also involves a single app, or whether a combination of apps is necessary thus making Guided Access a clumsy tool to fit the need. While not a long process, it does add an extra step each time you want to switch between apps to have to de-activate Guided Access and re-activate it in the new app.
Our interviews and conversations with students reveal that they are extremely mindful of how distracting notifications and other apps can be, and are often looking for ways to help manage their devices better to support focus. Coaching students to use Guided Access when appropriate can give them a tool to use when they notice that they need it and when it fits the nature of the task. Similarly, for anyone giving presentations or sharing multimedia in class, using it can ensure that notifications don’t interrupt and cause a potentially embarrassing distraction.

iPad “Test Security” – Class Policies and Layout

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(img: Apple.com)

As use of our iPads expanded last year to include supplemental materials such as calculators, dictionaries and notes, teachers reported concerns about having iPads available in test environments. No matter the device, many teachers are hesitant to have devices accessible during test conditions, primarily due to a student’s ability to access programs or resources such as search engines, external websites or notes. Testing environments vary wildly in terms of their intent and scope, but with a few considerations the iPad can be present in the testing environment with a relatively high degree of security. The following guidelines can help if you want to utilize iPads either to access an online testing environment or as resources during testing through apps such as calculators, dictionaries/glossaries, or notes (when desired).

While the iPad is not meant to be a testing tool, and a course which is built on lecture-and-exam style delivery will be at odds with any 1-to-1 program, there are many scenarios in which a teacher may want to create exam-style conditions while still having access to the iPads. Possible examples:

  • Accommodations for students
  • Use of calculators or simulation tools
  • Dictionaries, thesaurus, glossary, translators
  • Open-book/open-notes exams

Two Class Policies (plus a bonus)

One of the great advantages of the iPad over laptops for this use is the wide viewing angle of the screen in combination with the ability to place the device flat on the table. While it takes some force of will to introduce, I suggest two clear-cut policies when beginning a testing situation with the iPads:

  1. The brightness must be turned all of the way up. Ensure that students can use the four-finger swipe or home button double-tap to get to their Control Center, and turn the screen brightness to its highest setting. This will allow you to clearly see what app or website is active on a student’s screen from a fair distance around the room.
  2. The iPads must be flat on the desk. The iPads have an extremely wide viewing angle, and when they lay flat on the desk, a teacher standing or moving throughout the room should have line-of-sight to most of the screens in the room. This is a major difference from laptop screens which traditionally have a more limited viewing angle and have to be vertical, which blocks teacher line-of-sight.

The combination of these two policies when in “testing conditions” makes it very easy to quickly scan the room and identify which apps or websites are active. One of our teachers has also implemented a policy where students known that he can (unannounced) double-tap the home button on a student’s iPad to access the list of active apps while testing. If he suspects that a student has another app running in the background, this may catch that app. My only hesitation around that policy is that iOS doesn’t, by default, ever shut down an app–apps run silently in the background when you switch to another app or back to the home screen. I could foresee a scenario where a student was studying at the last minute, walked into class and switched to the approved testing apps, but had notes still running in the background. This teacher’s strategy would “catch the notes,” even though they weren’t being used at that time. It’s a valid approach, although it seems like it would require explicit instruction to shut down all apps before the test begins.

Managing by Walking Around

In any 1-to-1 classroom, room arrangement and physical proximity/visibility is vital to a productive working environment. In general, I encourage teachers to consider multiple classroom layout options (when possible) to reflect the nature of that period’s work. For example, having standard classroom arrangements for lecture/presentation, group work and test/writing conditions help to support each use case. These can be as simple as drawing the room on the board and asking students to move the desks/tables at the beginning of class.

For test conditions, I would recommend a room layout which provides easy and quick scanning of as many screens as possible. A horseshoe/”U” shape, often used for class discussions, works very well if the iPads are flat and bright, since the teacher can stand in the center of the shape and see all the screens at the same time. Many other layouts are possible, but consider vantage points and line-of-sight to the highest number of screens at any point in time.

Coaching vs. Guarding

This all may seem draconian from a class management perspective, but this can be part of an ongoing conversation with students about managing distraction and devices in a class environment. If we reflect on our own technology habits, I think most of us would agree that a little visibility helps “keep us honest” and on task. When I’m working some place public or visible, I find that I’m less likely to be distracted and jump to off-task websites or activities. It’s not a forced working condition– I often put myself in a visible location when I know that I need some extra help staying focused to take advantage of the conditions. Talking to students about managing distractions, and being explicit about creating a situation where you can support their focus and help reinforce their good habits, can frame this as a positive learning environment rooted in solid class management principles.

Reflective Journaling in Schoology with Discussion Threads

Turning on the "Individually Assign" icon opens up the "Assign to:" box.

Reflection is a crucial element of many modern pedagogical systems. Whether explicitly stated, as by Dewey, or implicitly embedded as part of a process in systems such as Design Thinking and PBL, modern pedagogies place a high importance on the ability for students to self-assess and build metacognition through reflection. I use a variety of reflective activities in my classes, and often they are built-in to a project design cycle. Aside from these more task-oriented reflections, I have students run a reflective journal that is more free-form. I will often ask them prompts which I hope strike a balance between being guided towards critical thinking while being open-ended enough to encourage personal, not formulaic, response. My staple, borrowed from a mentor early in my career, is the every-Friday “What Did You Learn This Week?” (and added to by another, “…and How Did You Learn It?”).

When I started with weekly or daily reflections, I would have students write a couple of sentences on scraps of recycled paper and hand them in. This was relatively quick to set up, although reading those scraps was a) hard to manage and b) somewhat unsatisfying in its closed nature: I could not ask a student to expand an idea or give more context or information. Especially with Friday reflections, I would have to remember to circle back to a student on Monday to ask more, at which point we both may have lost the context or even the original idea.

I’ve developed some guidelines to use online tools for reflection, and now use the discussion threads in Schoology (our LMS) as my basic reflective tool, and am very happy with the system I’ve concocted. Here are my guidelines on the reflective writing setup that I use, and how to build it within Schoology.

Some Guidelines

While different situations may call for differing types of reflection, I default to some basic conditions. Standard reflective activities in my classes are:

  • Private between student and teacher. Reflection is primarily an introspective activity, and students should be able to critically discuss failures and “what went wrong” as well as what went right. Especially early-on as students are learning to reflect critically, this should be visible to the teacher, but not to other students.
  • Able to start conversation/prompt follow-ups. If reflection is a skill to be developed, then giving feedback and asking follow-up questions is an important component of the teacher’s role in reflection.
  • Not graded/assessed. Reflective writing is often free-form and encourages brainstorming. I don’t want these to be assessed activities (although there are cases where I will assess larger, more structured reflection/self-assessment).
  • Chronological/Archived. Students should be able to see past reflections to identify trends and common occurrences, or to remark upon growth.
  • Contextual. Students should be able to connect reflective writing directly to learning activities or resources.

Building the Reflective Journal in Schoology

Using the Discussion tool, we can build individual discussion threads for each student that accomplish these priorities. Since activities in Schoology can be individually assigned to groups or individuals, I can create a discussion thread for each student, which only they will see. I will be able to see all of them, and quickly flip through to look at each student’s work. In addition, since it’s a discussion thread, I can ask follow-up questions, post comments, or even ask students to go back and comment upon past reflections as part of portfolio-building or end-of-unit wrap-ups.

First, I create folder called “Your Reflective Journal” (since students will only end up seeing theirs, I keep it singular).

journalfolder

In the folder, I create discussion threads for each student and title them with the student’s name (e.g. “Journal: Jeff”). When creating the discussion, I choose the Individually Assign option to bring up the “Assign To:” box.

Turning on the "Individually Assign" icon opens up the "Assign to:" box.

Turning on the “Individually Assign” icon opens up the “Assign to:” box.

I can assign the discussion directly to that student. Since the discussions are hypertext, students can embed files or links directly into their reflections. Sometimes our prompts are specific enough to expect an attachment or link, and sometimes students will do that in response to a more general prompt.

When it’s time to read through and see what students have posted, it’s fairly easy and quick to scroll through many in sequence. I open up the first journal in my folder, and skim through. I won’t always post comments or questions (although I do try to comment more in the beginning as we’re learning the skills of reflective writing). To move to the next journal in the folder, I use the “Next” button in the upper-right. While many people miss this navigation button, it makes it very easy for me to flip through my class.

Many people miss this! Go to the next item in your folder, in this case, the next journal thread.

Many people miss this! Go to the next item in your folder, in this case, the next journal thread.

While I haven’t done this in the past, I could go into Course Analytics at the end of a defined period and look at the relative participation levels of each student within their journals by looking at the number of posts. While I don’t assess these outright, using that data could be part of an individual conversation with students who are not participating.

Why Not a Blog?

Students (and all users) can have a blog within Schoology as part of their user account, and blogging is a common platform for reflective writing. As I listed in my priorities, though, I want these activities to be primarily private at this point. Our school settings are such that a student’s user blog can be read by other internal users, and that’s consistent with how I envision the Schoology blog feature being used: to write (perhaps reflectively) for an audience. Blogging is part of our Digital Media course, and students will delve into Social Media as a publishing tool through other activities and structures. As I view the reflection as primarily for one’s self, though, I think that this model (private, embedded within the course) is more appropriate.

How About You?

How do you facilitate reflective journaling or writing in your courses? Do you use a different tool or structure? Would you change something about this model to make it fit your students and course? Please comment or question below!