Thursday, October 24, 2013

Video follow-up on embedding a blog into weebly

I recently published a tutorial on how I embedded a blog into a weebly page. I wasn't happy with the RSS widget that weebly offers, and I have found a great tool called feedroll that generates the html code to publish the content of your blog, while still following the style rules of your weebly site.

One of my favourite features of this method is that it blends seamlessly with the rest of your weebly site. Students (or viewers) likely aren't aware of the tools that are "behind-the-scenes" running the show. These tools have options such as scheduling a post to appear at a given time, embedding content like youtube videos or Google forms, and having everything in the same place. I have found it easy to repeat the mantra "check my weebly" to the point where students know it's the place to find everything.

I will follow up this video with a tutorial on how I've been using Google forms and a couple of scripts to automate a daily math problem, including setting a time limit for responses, automating grading, and easily collating grades into a gradebook spreadsheet.

Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Google Forms v.s. Edmodo Quizzes

I was asked a great question recently by a colleague. She has read about how I'm using Google Forms embedded in my blog for my students to do a daily math problem. I also have my students on Edmodo, and I occasionally give them quizzes and assignments through that.

Her question prompted me to turn a critical eye towards my methodology. I thought about my learning objectives and my students' learning experience, and I've made a few conclusions. There are pros and cons for each method, and I'll attempt to list a few here.

If you haven't yet read my posts on embedding forms and blogs into weebly, I recommend you take a few minutes to skim it over. Or you can just head over to my weebly site and take a look (although I've restricted the form component to members of my school board, so you won't be able to see that part).

Google Forms

Google forms have a few distinct advantages that set them apart.
  • They are incredibly easy to share: when I make a Form, it's easy. I can simply add others as viewers, commentators or authors. This allows easy reuse and remixing, and is totally in line with my teaching philosophy (of openness and collaboration). Edmodo doesn't have any way to easily share quizzes or assignments between teachers, and even their helpful workaround hasn't worked for me.
  • Because they're all in the Google family, forms work well with docs, sheets, and drawings. It's also very easy to embed images and YouTube videos. Linking images to URLs means you don't have to download and upload images - just copy and paste the address (and please be sure you're not violating copyright!)
  • By installing scripts, you can augment the basic functions of forms and create powerful tools. I use formlimiter and flubaroo all the time, and there is no end to the number of scripts you can find. And if you're adventurous, you can even write your own scripts to customize what functions you want to automate. That may be a little beyond the average user, but the potential is there. I use a script called formlimiter to automatically close the form to responses at a predetermined date and time. This works well, because the questions appear and disappear according to a schedule I've set up in advance.
  • It's also very easy to work with the data collected by the form. Because it's in a spreadsheet, you can use all sorts of powerful commands to manipulate the data. Want to know the class average? Easy. Want to import the data into another spreadsheet? No problem. Want to find the entry for a particular date that matches a student's username? There's a command for that. Conditional formatting, sorting, and many other tools are available without the need to copy the data into another format.

There are a few drawbacks, though. It can be time consuming to set up each form if you have to do a lot of them. I use them daily with my math class, and there's quite a bit of front-end and back-end work that students never see. Installing scripts, grading, and transferring grades into whatever gradebook you're using takes time.

Which leads me to discuss Edmodo.

The main strength of the Edmodo platform lies in its simplicity. 
  • Make a quiz, assign it, and you're good to go. Grades are automatically calculated (for multiple choice, matching and fill in the blank questions), and they appear in the gradebook.
  • This also gives students formative assessment by giving them real-time data about their comprehension. It is easy for teachers to check the progress of the whole class or individual students.
  • I really like the integration of the LaTeX markup language for math. It is easy to format questions that require complex math layout (such as exponents or integrals). Using Google Drive, the solution I have implemented is to embed an image of the math. This works, but it's not efficient and doesn't allow you to edit the math in-situ.

But Edmodo doesn't facilitate sharing among teachers with nearly the same ease as Google Drive. 

I work with a few other math teachers, and we each have to create our own quiz when assessing our students. Right now, we are using a Google doc as a repository for the test questions and answers, which allows the easy real-time sharing and communication (I absolutely adore the comment functionality), but there is a lot of time wasted duplicating work.

Edmodo also requires students to have only that one page of content appear in their browser window. Students can have other windows open with other content, and for most teachers this is a non-issue. However, I use an embedded form in the daily math blog, which lets students see the entire post - including the questions - all in the same place. It's a small difference, but I like that students can still see the big picture, or refer to earlier questions. Cumulative problem-solving (where a response builds on earlier answers) can be simplified, and reinforce the skills I want students to build. I often break a complex word problem into pieces, and it helps to have all the parts in the same place when it comes time to build on them.
In conclusion, I use both Edmodo and Google Drive regularly in my classroom. Each has strengths that serve my students. Which one to choose is a result of my learning objectives for the activity. I'm the kind of person who just can't resist tinkering with something, and I love the ability to play with scripts, but I also tend to break things before I can improve them.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Why I'm Not an Apple Fan (but it's okay that you are) PT 3

This is part 3 in a 3 part series. You can see part 1 here and part 2 here.

I have written about how I'm not a fan of Apple, and also not a fan of Microsoft. It's a personal bias, a reflection of my own experiences. I don't hold it against people who choose to purchase from these companies; it's just not for me.

I am, however, very pro-Google. I understand how Google makes money from me, and to be honest, I'm okay with that. I don't mind that Google watches what I'm doing in order to target me with relevant advertising. Someone I know (and I won't mention her by name) isn't, and my advice is to choose not to use Google services. But to make that choice, one has to be careful. Google isn't the only company watching what you're doing.

However, in my experience, it's likely that they are the best at it.That's what their quarterly reports would indicate. And to be honest, I'm not looking for a handout here. Yes, I use gmail, google drive, blogger (you're reading this, aren't you?) and all sorts of other services provided by Google. The total cost to me so far? Zero dollars. I don't mind paying for these services by allowing Google to tailor advertisements to my interests. To be honest, I'd much rather see an ad related to education than one showing the latest fancy car. The way I look at it, I'm going to be seeing ads, so they might as well be ones that might interest me. In a way, Google's doing me a bit of a favour by weeding out all the stuff I don't really care about, and I'm getting great services for free at the same time.
Android OS
Image: WikiMedia Commons

Google Glass.
Image: Wikipedia
They've also become one of the best (in my opinion) at encouraging users to innovate. They routinely release their code and encourage consumers to hack. They've done this with Google Glass, the Chromium OS, and my personal favourite, Android OS.
Not to say that I'm a developer. Not at all. But if I wanted to, I could be. If I can think up some new way of using a piece of hardware, Google has often made that possible. And the way I see it, if I can dream up something new, there's a good chance that someone smarter than me has already tried it and gotten it working.

Image: WikiMedia Commons
This way of doing things allows the community to contribute to their experience. In education, it's what I would term "student-driven learning." It's focused on the user experience, and gives us a voice in how we want to use our devices.

Ultimately, it boils down to a simple question of philosophical alignment. I strive to get my students to see that they have a voice in their education; why wouldn't I want to choose a product that encourages me to have a voice too?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why I'm Not an Apple Fan (but it's okay that you are) PT 2

This is part 2 in a 3 part series. You can read part 1 here.

I recently posted an opinion piece about why I'm not an Apple fan. I think I'm taking a bit of a risk in publishing my opinion (which is somewhat unpopular among my circle), but in the interest of opening dialogue, I wanted to spark something. I know people who are devout Apple fans, and we can get into hours-long debates.

The Big Three

Before I get to that, I want to explain myself a bit. I'm not aligned against Apple specifically. I have no grudge against people who are Apple proponents. I will happily agree with many of their arguments supporting their opinion.

I'm also not a proponent of Microsoft. I haven't ever been. I have, for decades now, used their products, but always begrudgingly. I have no special love for Microsoft. I say this as I'm using a netbook running Windows 7 to write this post.

My use of Windows is mostly a result of their success at market penetration. Since the beginning of personal computing, Microsoft has managed to maintain a strong foothold, especially on the operating system front. Most people think of Mac and Windows as two sides of the same coin: if you don't want one, you must choose the other. And I suppose that for most people, that's true.

Image: WikiMedia Commons
However, there is a third option. Linux is a free, open-source operating system. It has been built by people who are not looking for any monetary reward for their efforts. It has been improved by people who believe in open-source software. It runs on more platforms than any other operating system. It's fast, it's powerful, it's versatile, and it's free. But it's not marketed. No one has any vested interest in convincing you that it's the best choice. Those who choose to use Linux do so because they have made the choice to migrate to a platform that allows users to create, improve, and deploy new ideas without restriction.

If all that sounds wonderful, then you might be wondering "Why doesn't everyone use Linux if it's so great?" The short answer is that it has a steep learning curve. Because it's different, people may be put off by the requirement that they learn a new way of operating a computer. And there are a lot of very smart people who use Linux, who may not have the most patience for "noobs." It is developer oriented, so installing software can appear complicated (many examples ask you to type "sudo git ..." in a command shell), but in reality, it's not too bad. Once you begin to get used to the way things are done in Linux (which is different from Windows or OSX), you might find that you prefer the way it works. And one of my favourite features of Linux is that you can run it from a USB drive without making any changes to your computer. It's like a test-drive with no risk! If you don't like it, just take the USB stick out and restart your computer, and everything will go back to the way it was before you started.

If that's beyond what you want to do,

don't fret. There are plenty of open-source software options that will run on Windows or OSX. I use Inkscape, Open Office, Audacity, and others. You may have noticed that I use images from Wikimedia Commons and Open Clip Art. These tools are amazingly powerful, and incredibly, they're free. Their creators have seen fit to allow others to use, modify and distribute their work with ideas (often with the only requirement being that you give them credit by listing them as a contributor). Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) shows up a lot in education, and for good reason.

Another interesting fact is that a lot of the internet runs on open-source software.

So in a way, we're all participating in open-source. Open-source software has opened the world's access to
knowledge. In my opinion, the old way of viewing information and ideas as proprietary and closed is outdated. Allowing and encouraging reuse and modification of ideas will be humanity's most profound achievement. The information age has changed the way many of us look at how knowledge can be shared and improved, and I believe that as we continue to grow, we will gradually change the way we live to reflect this emphasis on sharing.

A special thank you to all the open-source creators out there (especially contributors to Wikimedia Commons and Open Clip Art). I rely heavily on your work, and appreciate it greatly!