Archive for August 2014

Getting to Know Students and their Tech Interests


(img: Raspberry Pi + Lego computer, Flickr: pikesley)

In “The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee,” Robert Taylor viewed the computer as serving three potential roles for students: 1) a tutor, delivering instruction to students, 2) a tool, which students would use to achieve learning, and 3) a tutee, which students would instruct through programming and design activities and thus themselves implicitly “shift the focus of education in the classroom from end product to process, from acquiring facts to manipulating and understanding them.” My observation is that most of our current ed tech field focuses exclusively on the first of these roles– viewing computing as a tutor (online/blended instruction, adaptive testing, flipped class, Khan Academy, etc).

Part of the underlying philosophy of a 1:1 program is a desire to expand the use of the computer as a tool, since each student then has a computer as part of their school toolkit. This is especially true in a program such as ours where students own and administer the device, since the students can now customize and develop the tool to best fit their own needs, uses and interests (Do I remember right that in Star Wars, you had to build your own lightsaber before you could become a Jedi?). Our work embedding computer science into math and science classes, as well as our robotics and physical computing projects through our maker space, are explorations into the tutee role of computers, and using the programming as an oblique strategy towards non-computing curricular goals.

In my own Digital Media class this year, I am challenging myself to create as many tool and tutee opportunities for students as possible, so that they may understand and master a concept that I consider to be crucial to modern responsible technology usage: computers are not meant to be accepted “as is” and used off-the-shelf. Modern technology usage must involve the skills and confidence to modify and customize a piece of technology to fit each person individually. While it is quite dated now, I highly recommend reading Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning… Was the Command Line,” available as a free download from the author’s website for more on this concept.

Over at A Recursive Process, Dan Anderson shared an activity called “My Favorite” with his math students. The concept is to pick a favorite math topic from anything, and share it with the class. I love this idea, and am modifying it for my first day of class.

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New Schoology Features – (Almost) Adaptive Assessment for Your Curriculum?

Schoology's new Mastery panel (

Adaptive testing is one of the largest buzz-worthy trends in Ed Tech right now– the ISTE conference was absolutely awash in companies selling adaptive testing engines, aligned with Common Core and complete with packaged curriculum materials. It’s easy to see the appeal of adaptive testing: students are assessed on a complete package of learning objectives, and any areas of struggle or difficulty are identified and targeted. Students work at a level which is appropriate for them in rigor and complexity, and can move ahead or given additional reinforcement if necessary. Unfortunately, adaptive testing systems are incredibly complex, which makes them very hard to modify to reflect each individual teacher’s course and curriculum.

Schoology has released a handful of new features to Enterprise customers over the summer which, when used together, form a very powerful formative assessment environment. By using these tools, it’s possible to build quizzes which offer students opportunities to practice skills and content as needed, and report data back to teachers in a very granular and performance-oriented manner. For classes or schools which use standards- or learning objectives-based grading and reporting, the backwards design process of writing curriculum and assessment to match those objectives fits perfectly into this new package. The combination of Learning Objectives, Question Banks with Random Questions and the Mastery reporting panel allows teachers to generate randomized practice opportunities targeted to individual or multiple performance goals, and analyze each for diagnostic data on each student’s performance. Each of these tools requires some setup to accomplish this, so let’s dive in.

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Helping Students Prioritize through Calendar Naming Conventions


Last year was our first school-wide use of Schoology as an LMS. While our first year was overall a great success for adopting the new LMS platform and upgrading from Moodle, we identified a few areas that we wanted to rethink for this coming year. One of the biggest conversations we had throughout the year was about calendaring of class events and assignments. Schoology lets students see a calendar view of all of their courses, which students reported was very helpful for them. Unfortunately, the tool isn’t very granular, and it presents all types of assignments and activities as equal on the calendar. We wanted a way to differentiate calendar entries so that students could look at a daily view and be able to prioritize based on the different types of activities that they’d see.

It’s unfortunate that we have to do this manually– the ability to create an assignment within certain categories, and have those categories reflected on the calendar, would make this whole issue disappear. Even better would be a tagging system which would allow teachers and students alike to tag activities and build context around them ( planning for “Homework,” “Reading,” “Needs Extra Time” and “Individual” for example, would be very different than “Project,” “Brainstorm/Planning,” “Skype”, “Tim”). Modern task management systems are rich in context tools such as tagging or smart search.

This speaks directly to one of my large concerns about measuring the health of our LMS and digital tools– balancing and optimizing our information streams so that students can learn to manage digital communication without becoming overwhelmed and ignoring the information that teachers and the school are providing. Seeing a list of activities dated for the next day, for example, could be useful for a student who is skilled at prioritizing and triaging their workload. For a student still developing executive function skills, it could be too devoid of context to be useful. Furthermore, in-class activities may be tagged with a date, which would make them appear on a calendar as “due” the next day, when they have yet to be assigned (and aren’t meant to be done from home). To help us make our calendaring information more useful, Christina Serkowski headed up a faculty focus group at the end of last year and built out some recommendations. Based on those, we’ve come up with what we hope is coding system for teachers to use when entering activities onto the calendar.

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The Egalitarian Projector: Wired and Wireless Projection in BYOD Classrooms

Standard Dongle Bundle: HDMI, Mini Display Port, 30-Pin

Over the summer we upgraded many of our projectors, which gave us the opportunity to refresh our classroom A/V model. In a BYOD school, projection can be a logistical nightmare: students bringing myriad devices with different display adapter requirements puts a burden on the IT department to have adapters available for each class. As anyone who has spent a class period on student presentations knows, valuable time is lost with students shuffling through the front of the room and exchanging adapters even if the correct ones are all present.

Logistics aside, the wired projector also presents a subtle-but-constant “sage on stage” control dynamic: whether student or teacher, whoever is presenting and plugged in to the projector controls what is being displayed. Freeform discussion, question-and-answer, or targeted inquiry are always unbalanced since only one person has the ability to display information.

In order to both create a more flexible learning environment as well as eliminate the dreaded dongle bundles, we have equipped all of our classrooms this year with both wired and wireless projection capabilities that meet our BYOD requirements.


The picture below represents our average classroom dongle bundle– HDMI, Mini Display Port and Apple 30-pin. Since our Middle School iPad program began shortly before the release of the Lightning-based iPad models, this bundle covers most of the laptops and iPads that we see on campus. It does not cover, though, Lightning-based iPads, nor many phones or tablets with mini-HDMI. Also notice that audio has to be through a separate cable. Not every student presentation requires audio, of course, but any kind of video or multimedia sharing will require plugging in two cables.

Standard Dongle Bundle: HDMI, Mini Display Port, 30-Pin

Standard Dongle Bundle: HDMI, Mini Display Port, 30-Pin

We do have a handful of Lightning adapters and mini-HDMI adapters on hand in IT, but have not deployed them into every classroom. Since we want teachers and students to have confidence in their ability to fully use every space on campus, this isn’t ideal.


The addition to our classroom deployment this year is the use of Apple TV in combination with AirParrot. iOS and Mavericks-based MacBooks made after mid-2011 will broadcast audio and video to Apple TV’s natively. AirParrot is a client to do the same with Windows and pre-2011 MacBooks. I’ve written about AirParrot before, and last spring it didn’t totally work with Windows 8. After conversations with both Squirrels (the company behind AirParrot– I haven’t gotten to talking to actual squirrels yet) and friends “in the know” at Microsoft, it seems like the problem was a very complex display driver setup within Windows 8. Subsequent updates to 8.1 have made AirParrot much more workable for that OS as well to the point where we’re comfortable deploying it to the school this year.

A couple of implementation notes on AirParrot: since we want wireless projection to be available for students as well as teachers, we have purchased licenses for our students to use and will invite them to download AirParrot and request a license from IT if they want to put it on their school-use laptop. This is a cost to the school, but we purchase class-required apps for student-owned iPads in the Middle School, as well as student licenses for e-mail, and this seems consistent with that philosophy.

Second, Windows 8.1 is still not entirely seamless in its display configuration. In order to serve the display needs of both Tablet and Desktop modes, the Desktop mode has a built-in magnification setting which makes the text and icons more usable (instead of being ridiculously tiny as they would be naturally with the default resolution). This setting is the key instigator in display issues with AirParrot, and some devices may need it to be turned off in order to display correctly. This can result in the text and icons being uncomfortably small on the tablet display itself, which requires adjusting the display resolution. To complicate things further, the magnification setting requires logging out to change– it can’t be applied on the fly. This means it’s much more important to get one setting which can be “set it and forget it” rather than adjusting as you go. It seems as though different hardware models have different “sweet spot” combinations of magnification and resolution which will allow the display to be sufficient both a) in Desktop mode on the tablet and b) through AirParrot. The settings I ended up with on my Surface 2, for example, did not translate to the Surface 3 (the 3 looks great through the AirParrot, though!). We’ll continue to monitor this as the year develops.

Projecting a Socratic Seminar

Knowing that this is a slightly awkward first step towards truly seamless wireless projecting, I’m excited to see the ability for students to use the projector as a tool for discussion and small group work as well as lecture/presentation. When students can share information and resources with a group/class in real time rather than simply as prepared delivery, and when the projector becomes one more “open access” collaboration tool, the classroom is a more flexible and balanced learning environment.