Category: In The Classroom

Image representing Google Docs as depicted in ...

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One of the tools cited by students as most helpful was the free set of tools provided by Google, known colloquially as “Google Docs“.  If you haven’t run into them yourself, these free, online tools include simplified word process, presentation software, a spreadsheet, and form creator (often used currently for short surveys), and a drawing program.  In most cases, they do not have the sophistication and range of features found in commercially available tools such as the Microsoft Office Suite, but their feature set often does the trick for most basic uses of these tools.  The word processing program, in particular is a perfectly adequate tool for producing term papers.  But the biggest claim to fame I found for my classroom use was the ability for groups to edit documents collaboratively and simultaneously.  This is a feature that I’ve been employing with co-writers for more than a year — freeing research groups from purchasing special access to systems such as Basecamp or Huddle.

The Good

When I introduced this set of tools to my students, I was extremely surprised to find that nearly all of them were entirely unfamiliar with Google docs, despite the adoption of Google apps by our campus more than a year ago.  They used commercial software in their freshman composition course, which costs each student about $40 under our campus agreement, but they were unaware that a free set of tools were an alternative that they could use now …. and more importantly, after they have graduated.

As college educators, we constantly ask ourselves how much do we need to teach the so-called digital natives about new developments in digital communication.  We assume that students will be ahead of us in adopting these tools, but as Joanna Goode pointed out in a recent article (Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.), many students are not exposed to essential tools informally.  Hence, instructors need to check with students and be prepared to point them in the direction of computer tools and techniques that will aid them in achieving academic success.

For my students, the suite of free tools was perfectly adequate for most assignments – and it allowed them to do more collaborative work with fellow students.  Several reported during the term that Google docs had allowed their groups to succeed in completing assignments for different classes, encouraging more participation from the whole group instead of the tendency for one or two people to do all of the work because they alone could meet face to face to do the assignments.

For my class, we often used these tools for small group engagement over readings as well as preparation for group teach-backs and practicing instruction with educational technology.

The Problematic

Some tools in the Google apps suite are still in development.  While the word processor was robust and full-featured, the spreadsheet and drawing programs could not complete with the commercial solutions.  Microsoft‘s Excel still has more formulas and a stronger graphing feature set that make it a better choice for creating spreadsheets even for simple tasks like creating a course grade book.

The Solutions

A small number of my students had difficulty throughout the term in using Google docs, especially in logging into the suite, even with their official campus ID.  Since mine was a course on educational technology, I used these situations as an example of how to do problem-solving to resolve technology glitches.  In some cases, we had to make do by creating an alternative, new log in for these students.   But many cases were occasions for patience and persistence … the willingness to find a work around to try later is an essential disposition in education, especially whenever trying out new techniques or tools.

Students generally found that the advantages of Google Docs …. especially the ability to edit a document by several people simultaneously …. outweighed the drawbacks.  But they also learned to do quick tests of concept to see if a feature set for a specific tool would be adequate for the assignment.  In my class, this was an important learning objective!  For professors using this suite for class, you probably should double check the feature set of any tool before you suggest it to students.  Since they often wait until the last minute to even start an assignment, this will lessen the likelihood of a “gotcha” situation and much frustration on the part of the students.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how Google extends their application suite.  If it remains free and readily accessible, many recent graduates will be able to keep using technology in their classrooms even with thin (and getting thinner) school budgets.

Image representing Moodle as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Generally, I teach classes that are offered largely online.  We might have a weekend meeting once during the term, but the rest of the course is usually conducted online.  So, when I took over a face-to-face course for the first time in (*cough*) too many years, I naturally gravitated toward using online content organized using a course management system.

I’ve used many of them over the years.  In the early days, we used tools such as Top Class and Web Crossing (anyone remember them?).  Then came WebCT/Vista, Blackboard, and Moodle.  They all have their strengths and weaknesses.  Fortunately, I am rather fond of the emerging standard at our campus – the open source CMS, Moodle.

The Good

As a consultant, I’ve often been frustrated that faculty don’t seem eager to use the various tools that this – or most other – course management systems offer.  But, now that I’ve been on the other side again for a term, I have to say that using this online tool as the supreme organizer of topics, materials, and assignments – including collection of assignments electronically – made life a lot easier for not only me but also for (most of) my students.

I tend to organize my course chronologically.  That way, students have a ready check-list of what is coming up and know what to expect each week.  I created a module per week, therefore, and posted the topics we’d be covering, the readings, the lecture resources (such as my PowerPoint presentations and links to online videos), and assignments due.  This allowed students to read and prepare for lectures and to have the materials right in front of them on their lab computers as we worked in class.  Since seeing the board or the projected screen was difficult for about half of the class, this allowed them to see materials clearly …. overcoming some of the limitations of the room by using the room’s resources in conjunction with the online organization.  It also allowed me to adjust the class as we went – adding resources to meet student needs and interests, especially as they prepared to write their big research paper for the course.

The online, digital nature of materials was also very helpful to one of my students who was legally blind … he could use the digital copies along with text-to-speech software or ZoomText to access documents before, during, or after lectures.  Since I also gave the two tests using Moodle’s quiz function, we did not have to make any special accommodations for this student!!  He was able to be just another student in the class, making use of educational technology and universal design to access the class materials in ways that worked for him.

The Problematic

For this class, I did not have a book.  All materials were provided online.  For some students, this was somewhat of a challenge.  Despite the common perception of this generation as “digital natives”, many students expressed dissatisfaction with reading materials online for long periods.  They told me that they often printed out online readings and complained about printing costs and that reading online made them tired.

The Solution

Since I knew that some students did not have ready access to materials online, I always allowed for work and reading time during class periods and allowed students to submit printed …. rather than online …. assignments.  A few students did take me up on that option, and I accepted printed homework during the term.

To address the online reading problem, I taught students how to adjust fonts in Word documents and in web pages.  Most students did not know that it is easier to read sans serif fonts (such as Arial) online nor did they know how to adjust fonts.  Once we had made that change — and I generally remembered to change fonts in materials I handed out electronically — students found it much easier to do the reading for this class.

For those who still wanted to print documents in order to read them, I pointed out that, even at 5 cents per page, they would spend less in printing than they would have if I had made them by a text book.  The cheapest book I’d considered was $35, and they rapidly went up from there into over $100 per copy.  While I realized that this may not seem very student-centered, I was trying to save the majority of students money by offering all materials online.

But I also addressed ergonomic issues, such as asking them to be aware of lighting (to reduce glare) and their own posture when doing class work.  So much literature recently has been aimed at telling faculty how we need to catch up to students who “naturally” want us to adopt digital media that we forget how little students really know about managing their environment and habits …. even when online.

I really enjoyed teaching this semester. I think I learned a lot and was able to field-test many of the tools and educational technologies I recommend to educators in higher education and in K-12 settings.  I had some successes.  I had some flops.  But I know, from the debriefing with students at the end of the term, that we all learned a great deal from each other.  Me included.  What a great testimony to the concept of pre-service and in-service learning communities of educators.  To all of my co-learners, I say a hearty and heartfelt thank you!!

This reflection …. and some subsequent posts …. will attempt to debrief current and near-current practice (along with some mention of theory) in educational technology for pre-service teachers.  The good.  The problematic.  And the adjustments I would  make for future courses.

The Good

The course met in one of the University’s teaching labs, naturally.  This was a boon to just-in-time instruction since I would show the students a technique or tool which they could immediately implement on their own.  Great experiential learning.  Good way to bridge the well-known digital divide that does impact some of our students (some of whom had non-functional or inadequate personal computers) with state-of-the-art hardware and software.  And I did ask them to run some substantial programs such as Photoshop and Second Life.  So having reliable computers for experience and completion of assignments made the course a success.

The Problematic

And yet, those huge monitors on top of rows of tables definitely posed numerous challenges.

They did made it difficult to establish rapport between teacher and student by blocking the faces of the back half of the class.  I was not able to read their expressions to see if they were engaged, confused, bored, tired, or thinking hard.  While I could “read” the students in the front rows, we all know that students tend to self-select into regions of differing engagement with the material and the teacher.  I knew I was missing the feedback of half of my students …. and often the harder-to-engage half at that.

The computers hampered the ability of the students to see me and the visual portions of my instruction.  I still tend to use the whiteboard while talking, especially to draw charts, give the correct spelling of terms, and reinforce major ideas.  Even when I used the SmartBoard and computer combination (typing up notes or showing how to use a piece of software), I had to remember that the back half of the class literally could not read the bottom half of the projected screen.  This was a frequent problem whenever I was demonstrating a technique to the class.

The computers, and rows of tables upon which they rest, hindered interaction among students.  I tend to use constructivist methods in teaching, but getting students moved into groups for discussion was a chore.  The tables could not be moved, and so groups larger than three usually could not move around enough to actually talk to each other.  As the semester wore on, and coats joined backpacks in choking the aisles, I reduced the sizes of groups and the amount of time we spent in group break-out sessions.

The Solutions

  1. The flipped classroom.  I intentionally lectured less and made classroom time centered on student experimentation, small group discussion and production of learning artifacts.  I used our course management system, Moodle as an organized repository of class readings, course assignments and resources, online tutorials and resources, and copies of all of my notes.  That way, if someone could not read what was at the bottom of the board or screen, they could go back and get the details after class.  This was especially important because I had students with visual impairments …. they could participate in class knowing that they would be able to listen to anything I wrote when they accessed the material in the course website.
  2. Twitter backchannel.  While students did not make much use of it, I did create a twitter backchannel for the course.  That way, they could send me a quick note during class if they desired to give me feedback.
  3. Google docs.  Once they grasped the concept that every member of a group could edit a single document, students became enthused about using Google as a collaborative workspace.  I turned group discussions into sessions where small groups collaboratively created opinion papers or summarized readings together.  Once done, they could share results with me and …. depending upon the assignment …. with the whole class.  This made group collaboration feasible in a room built for individual work centered around a computer screen.
  4. Online discussion.  I used this sparingly since many students already are burned out by the frequent use of online discussions used to augment face-to-face classes.  I do enough reading of these discussions in my research and hobbies anyway (e.g. the Jedi Temple forums as a – now defunct – example).


If I had it to do all over again, and could not change rooms, I would be more explicit with the students about the changes required by both parties (teacher and student) in the flipped classroom.  While most students made good use of the freedom, some struggled and simply considered any time that I was not lecturing as “free time” with which to do what they wanted.  And Facebook generally trumped self-directed learning of educational technology.  (Not that Facebook wasn’t one of our technologies …. but that is for a later post.)  Some students needed more framing and guidance to be successful in this new teaching environment.  Given that some states (such as Texas) are encouraging teachers to lecture less and encourage group work more, it would behoove pre-service teachers to become more conversant with the theory and practice of this change in pedagogy.

I made the plunge into the world of Minecraft last weekend when I wasn’t invited to a beta testing weekend (for an unnamed MMORPG, but if you know me, you know which one).  Minecraft has been getting a LOT of buzz of late.  Even while it was still in beta, it had millions of users, and teachers were using it in K-12 classes to teach computer science, writing, collaboration (in multiplayer mode), English, and progression of crafting.  It just released into verion 1.0 on the same day I decided to buy a copy, and I have to say that I’m pleased with its functionality and stability so far … although all I’ve played at this point is the singleplayer, survival mode.

What It Is

Minecraft is a sandbox game – which means that it has no rules or set roles.  The player decides what to do and what success means.  At first, this can be a little frustrating because, like life, making choices and giving up other possibilities is a bit of a challenge.  Until you know what you CAN do, it is hard to decide what to try.  So, I took a look around the Internet and the Minecraft wiki to see what other players have been doing.  I was blown away by images of fancy castles, a replica of the Globe Theater, and old-fashioned masted ships.  Ok, so the world really is wide open in this game.  I had a high bar to meet.  And that’s just in creative mode.

You can also play the game in survival mode or hard mode.  So far, I’ve just tried survival mode, which gives a little spice to creativity.  Monsters come out of dark places (like the night and caves) and don’t necessarily go away during the day.  This means that the player must take measures to survive while building and pay attention while exploring.  My character died quite a lot at first, but then I started to develop strategies (with the help of tutorials), buildings, and weapons.  Now, while I need to be cautious, I haven’t lost a great deal of resources or time for a few (real time) days.

Hard mode looks like it plays more like the traditional MMOG with a lot of potential for monsters and fighting.

So, the player can pick the type of game experience desired and set his or her own goals.  In survival mode, the character does level up gradually, with the defeat of monsters and resource animals.  As the player/character progresses, there is a technology tree.  While the educator (and former classics minor) cringes at the use of gold and diamond armor), I am greatly enjoying the challenge of playing a stone-age farmer who is trying to find enough ore to craft iron weapons and armor while also keeping myself fed and housed.

It Ain’t Easy

The best thing is that Minecraft is a challenging game.  Resources are scarce and spread out.  And they are unpredictable.  Unlike World of Warcraft, mobs do not stay in the same place.  Resources spring up in various locations.  Monsters appear randomly – sometimes almost out of nowhere.  There is serious risk/reward assessment to be done, and planning ahead, being prepared, and playing smart are rewarded.

This game could be used to help players work on mapping.  With days only 10 minutes long in real time, you want to be efficient in navigating lest your character be caught away from shelter at night.  A lot of calculation practice could also be supported so that students would calculate how much of a resource they needed to achieve a crafting goal or how far they can move from shelter before they need to turn back.

And history …. oh how I love history learning opportunities.  With resources so scarce, students could really understand why cities are built near certain juxtapositions of resources such as mountains for ore, water for irrigation, pasturage for animals, etc.  And why stone-age buildings were built as they were.  And why the Romans, with their roads and aqueducts were able to roam the continent and into Britain.

Roman roads … as my character roams up and down hills, I’m really appreciating the Roman road …. and I’m planning to build more than a few now that my little farms (finally irrigated) are starting to generate a surplus of food that allows me to travel more and spend less time on finding food!   The world is vast enough that it is easy to get lost, and so students would also begin to understand why either mapping or signposting were necessary before the GPS was invented.  Of course, once the map and compass are developed in Minecraft, this is less of an issue.  Nevertheless, students each have to get to that point of technology creation first.  Which means that they need to do old-school navigation before they can tech up.

I’m going to experiment next on stone towers and try a Roman villa to see which keep out the monsters at night better while letting me feel a little less claustrophobic (stone buildings have their limits!).  I’ve been keeping my character’s living quarters in my mines up to this point with torches for light.  This works just fine, but the view is a little dull over time.

I find myself intrigued by questions of what types of building, crafting, food gathering, defense, and exploration strategies will work, especially pulling ideas from historical periods.  The cost/benefit equation feels very “right” to me – and I look forward to seeing how historical solutions to survival problems will  play out.

It Ain’t Perfect

It’s a game.  The technology progression is short and skips the bronze age (and steel — although you do get chain mail).  Torches burn forever, and water doesn’t evaporate or sink into the ground once you irrigate your fields.  Still, for an inexpensive indie game, the basic ideas are there for use by a clever teacher.

The graphics are very basic and old-school.  It gets a little annoying at times, but it also loads quickly and movement is smooth through the world.  It’s kinda like playing Legos, but that also makes calculation of volume for building pretty straightforward.

I’m planning to play this for the next month, until the new Star Wars MMOG from Bioware comes out.  Then, I might alternate between them after that.  Having a world in which to build anything without worrying about prim count (a la Second Life) but having some imposed challenges and limits is highly interesting, even for an adult.  I’d love to try this with a middle-school after school program!

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I decided to create a few mini-tutorials for my Computers in Education course, but I might as well put them out there for other teachers and faculty members to use.

It’s hard to decide how detailed to make some of these instructions.  There are multiple versions of iMovie currently available, and – while Apple keeps their interfaces fairly consistent, they do change slightly with each new version.  I wrote mine while using iMovie ’09, but the instructions should work for multiple versions.  Also, some students already know how to perform some tasks but not others.  I hate to cover material that they already know and am willing to answer student questions while they work in the lab, even if it means repeating myself.

I’ve given some guidance in how to get clips from commercially produced and amateur videos.  Remind your students to comply with copyright law and not abuse the Fair Use exemption …. which is pretty weak when using commercially produced entertainment media.  It’s tempting to put these up on YouTube for everyone to see, but in many cases it would not be appropriate.  I decided not to post my example video outside of our closed, Moodle class site … although my husband thought it was pretty cool!

The instructions are in a Google document.  Please feel free to use for your classes and give me feedback!