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Archive for the ‘Ed Tech’ Category

We’ve got to stop thinking that technology is an add-on to teaching and learning.

Hello school year!

Posted by phourigan on September 10, 2010

It’s really fantastic to be back, and one reason I’m so excited about this school year is my CEC class – I’m finally going to have my own environment where I can start putting into practice all of the skills and techniques that I’ve been trying to get others to do for years.

I’ve had two sections of CEC so far and it’s going to be very interesting.  These 8th grade boys are not used to having to solve problems for themselves, and for some of them it will take quite some time to reprogram their brains so that they don’t instinctively ask me for answers first.

The class will consist of a series of challenges, and here’s the first challenge:

I want you to blog.  I can’t decide what platform to use, so I’m asking you to help.

In your small group:
1. Research and select a blogging platform
2. Prepare a presentation that illustrates why we should choose your recommended platform over other platforms
3. Be ready to answer questions
4. Compose your thoughts in the online journal below
5. Download (using the link below), complete (using your brain) and submit (using the digital drop box below) the self-assessment worksheet

Items 4 & 5 reference three links in Moodle to resource materials – a journal page, a link to a Word document and a digital drop box for collecting work.

Most of the boys seem very excited to get started, but it’s interesting how many of them jumped immediately to PowerPoint – it’s like Pavlov’s dog.  They hear “Presentation” and instantly think that PowerPoint is the best (correction: only) medium.  I shall soon dispel them of that notion unless it’s really really good.

But the best part so far was when a student who has not yet even had the class came up to me and asked, “I was looking on Moodle at the challenge and was wondering if I could get started over the weekend.”

I asked, “What do you think I’m going to say?”

“Probably no,” he said with a sheepish grin.

“Now hang on a second,” I replied, “Let’s switch roles.  You’re the teacher and you were just approached by a student who was so eager to start a project that he asked if he could start it early – and on the weekend, no less!”

He smiled and said, “In that case, I guess the answer would be yes!”



Posted in CEC, Ed Tech | Leave a Comment »

Plagiarism-proof assignments: walking the walk

Posted by phourigan on June 15, 2010

A wise man once told me, “Never complain unless you have an alternate solution”.  In light of my previous post on paraphrasing, I thought I should expound further on what I think we can do about plagiarism:

  • Be honest with yourself.  Ask “What’s the point of this assignment?  What should a student remember about this experience twenty years from now?”  If you can’t answer that question, and you’d be surprised at how hard it is sometimes to find an answer, you should recognize that the assignment is busywork.  Kids are smart; they can recognize filler assignments and will adjust their efforts accordingly.  When I’m reading a suspect paper, I can usually tell the exact moment when the student lost interest and began copying and pasting – it’s usually right at the point where I begin losing interest in reading it.
  • Understand that almost all factual knowledge is available on the internet.  Research, as you and I learned it as students, is dead.  Twenty years ago we were like Gandalf riding his horse to Minas Tirith, poring over ancient texts in an effort to find the answer to our essential question.  Today, we type “One Ring to rule them all” into Google and get 1,940,000 search results in .31 seconds.  I’m sure Gandalf learned a lot in the course of his research and the experience was quite rewarding in itself, but today’s student is overwhelmed by the sheer volume and rapid accessibility of information.  With all of that information available and the ability to scan through dozens of sources in minutes, students will inevitably find what they’re looking for, stated in a much better way than they could phrase it themselves.  How do you paraphrase factual information that’s already expressed in a clear and concise way?  If all we’re asking for is regurgitation, we can’t possibly be surprised when we get it.
  • Students must be taught how to interpret what they’ve found and form their own opinion.  If you’re not asking for their opinion, you’re asking them to regurgitate.  If you don’t think they’re informed enough to offer an opinion, what are you waiting for?  This is what school should be all about – asking students to think.  Expressing their opinion is the one thing students can do better than an expert.  A student who forms an opinion and can back it up is a student who has learned the material.
  • If you’re concerned that students might find a paper online and use it, make that part of the assignment.  Have them find two papers or sources and write their own paper about which one is better and why.  Better yet, have them read two papers from a previous year’s class and write their own paper comparing the two, finishing the assignment by giving each paper a grade.
  • Set checkpoints.  In my experience, students usually plagiarize when they procrastinate and realize at the eleventh hour that they can’t possibly put the appropriate time and effort in to making their research their own.
  • For assignments that still require factual research, have the students turn in a copy of their source material.
  • If you think I’m crazy and none of this will work and you’re intent on serving up the same research assignments you’ve always used, there’s still hope: if your school has plagiarism-detection software (, for example), use it as a pre-writing tool instead of a Gotcha.  Students can submit a draft, identify pieces that they didn’t paraphrase well enough, rewrite the paper and submit.  Just understand that your assignment is no longer a research paper – it’s a paraphrasing exercise.

I’ll admit it – I loved writing research papers.  But for me, part of the fun was the detective work involved in finding the perfect source material and it was usually the result of a long and complicated process which made it that much more of a reward.  I can’t believe that today I would be disciplined enough to go through the same process when the internet makes much of the same data readily available.  I certainly can’t expect my students to be any different.

Posted in Ed Tech, Education | Leave a Comment »

Summer plans

Posted by phourigan on June 11, 2010

I’m technically considered faculty and not staff, so my school year comes to an end next week.  I think that’s something that will change for me as I go forward, but for now I’m content to take my eight weeks “off” and work on a couple initiatives in between visits to the beach:

  • GameMaker and Scratch – I’m holding a one week camp for a variety of ages that will introduce campers to both of these platforms.  To do so, I will have to learn both applications/languages . . . I’m actually looking forward to it.
  • CEC – The class I’m creating for next year’s 8th grade.  I’m so excited to get this off the ground.  The more I think about what’s possible with this particular format, the more I think it will truly engage students and challenge them to actually THINK.  If I do it right, it will be a huge culture shift for out school.  Not only will the 8th grade teachers see what kind of work I think they could be doing, but the students will move into their 9th grade year (and first one to one laptop year) with the knowledge of what’s possible.
  • Professional development –  I had a great conversation with an upper school Biology teacher yesterday.  She asked me point-blank, “I want to use technology more in my classes.  How do I do that?”  My honest answer was, “I don’t know.”  In years past I would have made something up; after all, I’m the Educational Technologist.  As I’ve learned more about what teachers should be doing with technology and learning, it’s become apparent to me that all I can do is show people tools – I can’t force them to make those tools relevant to their subject matter.

So what I suggested to her is that she take advantage of Twitter to reach out to other Biology teachers and see what tools they use and how they use them.  I would be happy to get her started, and once she found some good information I would be happy to help her implement those tools in her classroom.

I was pleased when she gave me an honest answer: “I don’t want to be sitting at home spending more time on the computer than I have to.”  In that case, Twitter is a bad idea.  We finished our conversation talking about the different ways she could connect with people face to face at regional and national conferences.  I’m glad she wants to work hard for her students, and I would offer any day to cover her classes!

  • EdAccess – My favorite conference of all-time.  I went a couple of years ago and got more out of the experience than any other PD opportunity I’ve had.  It’s an unconference, which is great because of the variety of offerings, and everyone is so enthusiastic and helpful.  Both of my young children were born over Memorial Day weekend (three years and one day apart), so I haven’t been able to go in the past as often as I’ve wanted, but now that my younger daughter is a year old I think I can manage it.  If you’ve never been to an unconference, I suggest you give it a try.  EdCamp Philly was also a great experience.

Many thanks to those who visit and read what I have to say.  I have to admit, it’s a great feeling to know that people – even just a few people – are reading what I have to say.  I appreciate your willingness to give me some of your time.

Have a great summer!  I’ll try to update from the beach in between sand castles.

Posted in Ed Tech, Education | Leave a Comment »

He who paraphrases best, wins

Posted by phourigan on June 9, 2010

I had an interesting discussion with another teacher yesterday.  A student of hers turned in a paper that was clearly mostly a copy and paste job.  Most of the time we treat this as a learning opportunity and sit down with the student and find out why they thought that was what the teacher was asking for.  Often, the student admits they were running out of time or simply couldn’t be bothered, but sometimes they think they acted correctly and we have to explain why what they gave us wasn’t what we were looking for.

This time though, was this particular student’s second time – he had received The Talk and The Warning on the previous assignment where he did almost exactly the same thing.

Cut and dried, right?  Not so fast . . .

What I usually do when looking for evidence of what we can call Inappropriate Paraphrasing is type suspicious-looking phrases into Google to find the source material.  In the past, this process usually led to Wikipedia or another well-known site.  This time was different.

Typing in the first sentence of the paper lead me to four different sites, all with exactly the same text, and none of them referencing the original source of the material.  One of the sites was the New York Times and another was run by the country in question’s Embassy (it was a History paper).  If I can’t tell which was the original source, how could a student?  How do you cite four sources of the same information?

But my main difficulty with what the student turned in was that what he turned in nearly met the paper’s requirements, even in its borrowed state.  The assignment asked for the student to research factual information, analyze the main message and put it in his own words.  Ten or fifteen years ago this was a daunting task.  The process of conducting the research was just as important as being able to analyze the resulting information.  But that was fifteen years ago.  Now, Google provides access to ALL the information – a process that doesn’t involve any more thought than typing in words that Google can understand.

So the paper becomes an exercise to see who can paraphrase the best.  If we ask for regurgitation and get regurgitation we can’t exactly be surprised.  We then start to grade the students who can paraphrase better or at least make an attempt to conceal the fact that they also copied and pasted their information.

My conversation with the teacher ended up focusing on how we can keep this from happening in the future.  I pointed out that the third section of the student’s paper – the part where the student was supposed to express an opinion – should actually be the entire assignment.  This approach is hard if not impossible to plagiarize, and if done well would show mastery of the material.

It reminded me of an experience I had earlier this year with an 8th grader who was putting a presentation together about Heinrich Himmler for his History class.  This boy is a top student and was working in PowerPoint, trying to find a place to insert his photos into a slide; the problem was that there was so much text on the slide he was having trouble.  I turned off his computer monitor and said, “Tell me about Himmler.”  For the next ten minutes he answered every question I had about the man.  When we finished I asked him, “So why do you even need the PowerPoint?  Why do you need all that text on screen?”

His reply was: “How else is my teacher going to know I know the information?”

“You just proved it to me!” I said.

“But if I do it this way I know I’ll get an A.”  And he was right.  He couldn’t bring himself to trust me and just stand up in front of the class and answer questions because somehow the PowerPoint was proof that he had done the work.

I’m hoping that my CEC class next year will allow me to show students that it’s what’s in their heads that counts and not what they can throw together in a paper or presentation.

Posted in Ed Tech, Education | 2 Comments »

Faculty meeting musings; a segue to a Blogger vs. KidBlog battle

Posted by phourigan on June 2, 2010

Last week at a faculty meeting, I was given the opportunity to speak to the faculty about professional development opportunities.  This is typically not my bailiwick, but I was very excited to give it a go because it gave me a chance to espouse a little of my educational philosophy to a captive audience.

It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that the best way to convince teachers that they need to start exploring how technology can help them become better teachers is to get them together with other teachers in their area of expertise.  If, say, a history teacher attends a history teacher conference, it’s my strong feeling that eventually those teachers will start discussing technology tools and how they help in and out of the classroom.  This is an entirely different approach than for me to appear at a history department meeting and say, “Here are some tools that I think you should use in your class.”

So I spoke for about five minutes and presented some research I had done on national departmental conferences, but I spent most of the time emphasizing the free opportunities available to all teachers.  Pennsylvania is fortunate in that educators have access to Intermediate Units – regional educational service agencies – that offer free training and professional development opportunities for public and independent school teachers.

At the end of my time, I emphasized that education needs to change.  Factual knowledge is readily available and we can’t confuse finding data with gaining insight.  I stressed that our job as teachers is to teach students how to take what they can find and make sense of it.

I thought it went pretty well, but as I returned to my seat I heard one of our upper school teachers mutter, “Oh yeah – like I’m going to have my kids keep blogs with all their wonderful spelling.”

Had this been lunch or a more intimate setting, I would have engaged in this conversation with great gusto.  However, it was a full faculty meeting that had already run over time, so I had the conversation in my head instead:

SO TEACH THEM HOW TO BLOG!!  Isn’t this what we’re supposed to do?  I guarantee that students who have a blog will write more than students who don’t.  This isn’t about spelling, and English teachers can hate me if they like, but spell check has taken care of spelling for us.  Instead, we need to teach context and meaning.  Having the correct spelling is akin to having the knowledge.  Picking the right word is akin to knowing what to do with that knowledge.

Now the segue —

I’ve been testing out Blogger and KidBlog this morning to see which platform will work for my CEC class next year.  I’m looking for a way to have my students keep their own individual blogs but have them under some kind of administrative control.

On the one hand, Blogger has the potential to fully integrate with Google Apps, since it’s also owned by Google.  Although that functionality isn’t there yet, I suspect it will be at some point.

On the other hand, KidBlog has the administrative control I’m looking for.  I can create a class and each student gets his own blog under my class heading.  I can approve postings, comments or both and students don’t need to provide an e-mail address to get an account, unlike Blogger which uses a Google Account.  My colleague, @ksivick, used KidBlog successfully in her 4th grade project earlier this year.

My fear is that 8th grade boys will be too cool to use a site called KidBlog.  I asked one of my current 7th graders what he thought about using a tool called KidBlog and he said he wouldn’t mind, “as long as it looks cool.”  In my opinion, KidBlog looks like it was designed for eight year olds, so I don’t know how that will go over.

Right now I’m leaning towards KidBlog and hoping they’ll change their name and give us some more templates.

Posted in Ed Tech, Education | Leave a Comment »

Google Apps for course management

Posted by phourigan on June 1, 2010

My school is committed to Moodle for course management, but I’m going to try something different for next year.  Google Apps for Education seems to offer enough features to not only act as a Moodle replacement, but to give more functionality than what Moodle can offer.  My CEC class will be the guinea pigs.

Here’s a run-down of how I’m planning on using the Google App features:

Gmail – obviously for e-mail communication.  Students will create custom contact lists and learn how to explore Google Labs for additional functionality.  We’ll create labels and filters and I’ll show them how to keep track of their messages while keeping their Inbox manageable.  We will also use the chat functionality, perhaps as a back channel in class.  I’m still not sure how that will go.

Google Calendar – Assignment book / planner.  We don’t take full advantage of the Google Calendar.  Being able to set reminders is huge, as is being able to invite attendees and even see their schedules, if the permissions are set up to do so.  I can imagine using Calendar to manage long-term assignments.  Also, you can also attach any file to any calendar event – it’s all integrated with Google Docs.

Google Docs – file management, sharing.  Shared folders will allow me to assign work with just a click.  For those who don’t know, you can upload a document or file to a shared folder and anyone with access to the folder automatically has access to the file.  Pair that with an e-mail or calendar reminder, and one of Moodle’s drawbacks is addressed (in Moodle, students don’t necessarily know that a course page has been updated unless they check the actual page).  Students will submit work using a shared folder as a drop box.  There’s no fear of messing up another students’ files because the Revision History lets you go back in time and revert to any previous version.  Even if a student erases all the text on a document and saves it, you can still get back to an earlier version (and see who the vandal was!).

Google Groups – because I’ve been disappointed with Google Sites, I’m envisioning using the Groups as my course’s home page.  From there, I can put links to outside resources, upload my syllabus, and have a home base for students to check in.  It seems like Google is paying more attention to their Groups lately, so hopefully they’ll continue to add features.

Google Forms – a largely unexplored frontier in our domain – I’ve used it for faculty surveys, but I want to use it on a daily basis to gauge whether or not students are ready to move on.  We don’t need to spend money on instant response hardware when I can just shoot out a Google Form and collect the results at almost real-time (something Google will probably improve on).

Looking forward, I’m hoping to take a look at Google Wave and and see how we can utilize them.  I want each of my students to keep a blog and I’ll need to check out how well integrates with the rest of Google’s functions.

If you have any suggestions or better yet, any experience using these functions wholesale, please let me know.

Posted in Ed Tech, Education | Leave a Comment »

EdCamp Philly! Part 2

Posted by phourigan on May 24, 2010

My session three was “Problems with Problem Based Learning” with Aaron Eyler (@aaron_eyler), and evolved into a great discussion about teaching and learning.

My take-aways:

Backchannels in class – I still can’t get over this.  Aaron has his students conduct backchannel discussions as part of class!  He admitted he had all AP and honors students, but there’s no reason that other classes couldn’t give this a try.  I contacted him afterward and found he uses Backnoise to hold these discussions.  I’m going to have to give this a try, if I have the guts.

“Does anyone realize that everything our kids do they’ll be able to go back and revisit?” – an excellent point.  My immediate reaction was to take this as a negative; after all, my Dean of Students role often has me talking to students about taking down their inappropriate posts and pictures from social networking sites.  However, when I thought more about this statement as a positive, there’s a lot of potential here.  My past papers, essays and tests are lost to history, but it would be an extremely interesting exercise to have students rewrite a paper that they wrote their freshman year, for example.  Digital portfolios should move with the student and be accessed and re-accessed, just like social networking sites.

“Our students turn in work that only one person sees. How useful is that today?” – Students turn in school work to their teacher.  They put their homemade videos online where they’re seen by two million people.  Which do you think is more rewarding for that student?

“Problem-based learning gives students a bigger audience.” – The connections made in the investigation of the problem make this statement ring true.  Expanding your classroom to include the larger world as a resource inevitably increases the number of people who are curious to see if the students can pull it off!  You can almost guarantee that if you bring in an expert from the professional world as a resource that that person will be interested in following up to see how everything went.

Trenton Barracks project – Barracks was going to be closed because of budget cuts.  Final exam – Save the Trenton Barracks!” – Students ran with this challenge, creating an online petition, calling politicians and even convincing an IHOP to donate a portion of a morning’s proceeds to the cause.  Amazing!  Forty-four students created their own portfolios to demonstrate they’ve done everything in their power to Save the Barracks, and must send their proposal to the state capitol.  My initial concern with a project like that is how to grade it, but if the students must keep a portfolio all along to PROVE that they were involved and making an effort, that would be enough information to allow me to grade the project properly.  Of course, the ultimate grade is the success or failure of the campaign, I suppose.

“Main roadblock to Problem Based Learning – the blocking of web 2.0 in schools” – I couldn’t agree more.  This morning in advisory, my boys were discussing their upcoming Health test and I could tell they were getting the definition of Blood Alcohol Content wrong.  I asked them to look it up.  They stared at me.  I said, “Take out your internet-ready device and find out the answer.”  One student guiltily took his iPhone out of his pocket (“I forgot to put it in my locker,” he said sheepishly) and got the job done.  Even with a teacher telling him to use it he had reservations.  We’ve brainwashed these kids into thinking that there’s something wrong with having the world’s knowledge in the palm of your hand.

“We fear for our students’ ability to face disagreement” – another point I’d never thought of.  In pre-Internet days, you had to deal with people who disagreed with you.  Now, you unfriend them or block them.  There’s no incentive to produce a thoughtful response.

I left this session feeling so inspired to take chances with my own CEC class next year.  Aaron works in a public school and has state exams to worry about, yet he’s plunging forward.  What’s keeping me and our teachers at this independent school from making the same commitment?

Session four turned into a short talk with Hadley Ferguson (@hadleyfj), a middle school teacher at my school’s sister school.  I had a family issue arise in the afternoon and was going to take an earlier train, but took some time to connect with her and hear about some of the great teaching and learning that’s happening in her classroom.  She’s using Wikis with her sixth grade girls and has had a positive response with them.

EdCamp Philly was tremendous.  I can’t wait until next year.

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Introduction to CEC

Posted by phourigan on May 21, 2010

I was asked to put together a course description for next year.  I’ll be working twice per seven day cycle with our 8th graders.  If you have comments, please share.

CEC class (Challenge, Exploration, Creativity) challenges students to dive deeper into subject area knowledge, solve problems and share their work and experiences with students around the world through the innovative use of technology.

Students learn to apply 21st century skills to essential questions rooted in the core curriculum.  Project parameters do not dictate a particular solution; instead, students tackle these essential questions by applying multiple learning strategies, engaging in problem solving, making global connections and producing original and creative solutions.

Creative work must meet the project requirements and detailed rubrics track progress and measure the effectiveness of the end product.

The Internet provides factual knowledge at a moment’s notice and many traditional projects suffer by asking students to regurgitate facts and do not encourage creative thinking or problem solving.  CEC approaches learning with the understanding that all facts are available – students must use those facts to create a new product that demonstrates higher order thinking, creativity and innovation.


Old project: Write a paper that discusses symbolism in Animal Farm.

Pre-Internet, students researched the characters to find their real-life analogues and conducted further research to construct a historical context for those figures.  The student wrote the paper, turned it in to the teacher and the project ended.

Post-Internet, students type “symbolism in Animal Farm” into Google, find a paper that discusses the symbolism in Animal Farm, and spend several hours trying to turn the paper into their own words.

New project:

Essential question: “Why do we still read Animal Farm today?”

The Challenge: Retell the Animal Farm story in a way our lower school students will understand.

Acceptable solutions:

Student created comic book

Student created movie

Student created video book review

Student created trading card game

Assessment: Did our lower school students “Get it”?  Were deadlines met?

Global connectivity:

Post student work on the Internet

Students blog their experiences

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The times they are a changin’

Posted by phourigan on May 14, 2010

This morning on the way to work, Bob Dylan came up on my iPod and I realized he’s actually a 21st Century Educator:

“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / your sons and your daughters are beyond your command / your old road is rapidly agin’ / please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand / for the times they are a-changin’.”

The song was released in 1964.  If you look at our schools there’s a good chance that some of the teachers still teach like it’s 1964.

I’m not going to get into making symbolic comparisons (okay – except for one: information superhighway, anyone?) but I was most struck by the fact that the times are always changing and always will be.  Almost forty years ago parents (and teachers?) were falling behind their children (and students?), and here we are now going through the same process.  But there’s something about technology that causes this particular change to be characterized as an ominous one.

Where will we be in forty years?

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EdCamp Philly

Posted by phourigan on May 13, 2010

I’m getting excited!  May 22nd is quickly approaching, and there are over 200 registrants for EdCamp Philly.  This, and conferences like this, are the future.  Collaboration, sharing, exploration – all the concepts we’re trying to illustrate to our students we can put into practice through these kinds of participant-driven workshops.

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