A Takeback in Action

Categories: Social Networking
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Published on: December 18, 2014

Earlier this month, I discussed sending teachers to social media to turn it into a positive environment and encourage responsible usage by students. This week, I learned professors at Colgate University did just that.

In the wake of protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, a number of racist comments were appearing on the university’s local Yik Yak feeds. Biology professor Geoff Holm helped unify faculty efforts to counter this behavior, and 50 staff members took to Yik Yak with positive messages and encouragement to students.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my original post: they are bringing an element of humanity to their local Yik Yak feed and promoting socially acceptable use.

I’ve also been monitoring our Yik Yak feed, and I’ve forwarded a couple of problematic posts to our administration and guidance counselors for intervention. I’ve flagged a couple of posts as inappropriate, and downvoted a few more. However, I’ve also noticed there’s a little bit of self-policing going on. College students are shouting down the high schoolers abusing the service, and Yik Yak does have a policy for handling users whose posts are frequently flagged as inappropriate or are downvoted all the time.

Even if our local staff doesn’t jump on board, it’s possible the local Yakkers will police their own community and the behavior will solve itself. There are always going to be a few trolls hanging around, but hopefully their impact will be limited—or even eliminated—by the community itself.

Time will tell.

Bringing Humanity to Technology

The problems of anonymous bullying associated with the Yik Yak app have arisen in our area, and it’s resulted in an impassioned call from staff calling for bans of the app, social media, and smart phones in our district. In a neighboring 1:1 district, the administration has reportedly (*see below for an update) seized iPads from students who have installed Yik Yak on their device and banned those students from the device for the remainder of the school year.

As our district’s tech coordinator, I felt compelled to respond to this reaction. Our staff is absolutely right, something must be done about the bullying issues we are experiencing. However, the 1:1 district’s response is reactionary and wrong, and banning social media and smartphones is counterproductive and, possibly, detrimental to solving the problem. I felt I could offer a far better solution for our district.

Cyberbullying is not an issue of technology, but one of humanity. The fact that students think it’s okay to say these things about another person—anonymously or otherwise—shows that there is a huge disconnect in their social education. Whether it’s a result of their home situation, their peer group selection, or their experiences in our classrooms is irrelevant; they simply do not understand the repercussions of their behavior.

Anonymity is both boon and bane to the Internet. In countries where the government removes the voice of the people, anonymity is critical for spreading a message without suffering consequences up to and including torture and death. In countries where rape and the subjugation of women is status quo, or where people are persecuted for their religion or their sexual orientation, these anonymous methods are the only way to report instances of violence and to spread a message of change. This is why there are so many people fighting against measures trying to take down anonymity on the Internet.

Unfortunately this anonymity is easily abused, as we can see with these issues of bullying.

The first problem with banning devices, or banning apps, is there is always another way. Assuming we could block Yik Yak with 100% effectiveness (we can’t), there is always another app. If we eliminate texting and Yik Yak, they’ll use Kik. Or Instagram. Or Hot or Not. Or Tindr. The list goes on. If we remove all apps, they will use message boards. Or blogs. Any one of these things can be set up in a manner of seconds and published to the world. It is an arms race we will always be on the losing end of.

Compounding our neighboring district’s problem is the fact teachers have now had educational tools removed from their students. It stands to reason their teachers have built or are building curriculum focused on students having iPads in their hands every day. I can’t imagine how my staff would feel if we rolled out our Chromebook 1:1 next year, they spent hours of time building new curriculum around them, and then we took the Chromebooks away from half of their students before the end of the first semester.

What’s more, these banning and confiscation measures merely ignore a school’s responsibility in these matters. If we block social media, then it does nothing to address its usage at home. It is effectively saying cyberbullying is not our problem any longer, despite the fact its consequences are still felt in our hallways every day. It does nothing to educate the students in the positive use of social media, nor does it teach them how to handle being bullied via social media.

Social media will be a part of our students’ lives, whether at home today, in college, or in their future workplaces and communities. Just as we teach face-to-face social interaction, we need to teach students how to manage online social interaction. This is not just limited to social media: the comments sections of YouTube, newspapers like our local Journal Star, and even Amazon or Yelp reviews are rife with abuse and inappropriate behavior. The Internet is social media.

Our best tool against bullying and other negative social behaviors is something we do every day: education. In November our district brought in a presenter to discuss cyberbullying, and that’s just the beginning of things we can do for our students. I have discussed some of these issues with my 5th grade classes this year and last, and our band director, Steve Hayes, has done the same with his Digital Citizenship program during RTI time at our junior high.

While these measures begin to solve the technology side of the problem, they still do not address the general issue of humanity. We can take it a step farther.

I wish my staff could all have seen Dr Henry Thiele’s keynote presentation at the ICE conference, “Getting to the Heart of Technology.” He discussed tech in several aspects of education, but specifically discussed using technology to reach those students who do not otherwise feel they have a voice. Most of it can be summed up in the video “Google Forms a teacher/student connection” (embedded below). Please give it a watch, as it addresses the very solution I am getting to.

It comes down to meeting the students on their level. We are a small school district, and thus we feel we are always available to our students and we all have open doors. This is true, but this does not mean all of our students are comfortable approaching us face to face. Why shouldn’t a student be able to approach us through email, or a public, class- or school-focused Facebook page or Twitter profile? Why shouldn’t we use simple electronic methods to give these kids a voice, like Andrea Kornowski did with a simple question at the end of a Google Form? It’s an easy thing we can all do, today.

As for Yik Yak, I propose we turn it into a positive tool. Imagine if faculty and staff posted positive messages to the service, congratulating athletes or highlighting positive school or community activities. It could be anonymous, or we could even sign our names if we so desired. At the very least we should be monitoring the service to head off potential issues, and to reach out to students who have been targeted.

To that end, I have signed up for the Yik Yak service, and I hope you will do the same. I am not calling out my colleagues in this response, but asking that we all make an effort to manage the damage abuse of services like Yik Yak can cause, and we demonstrate that these tools can absolutely be used for good.

Let’s meet the students on a level they understand, and in the process, introduce an element of humanity to our educational technology programs.

Update 12/9/14: The neighboring district in fact did not confiscate iPads as reported by our staff member, but did review student iPads for the presence of the app and notified parents to be aware of it. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a great initial move, and I apologized it got misrepresented.

I’m going to leave the rest of the post as is, however, as this was originally more of a response to an attitude of applauding that district for what they had allegedly done, and not necessarily a direct criticism of our neighbors, and they are not the first I’ve heard of schools taking similar reactionary measures.

RocketCodes are Go for Launch!

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Published on: November 21, 2014

This week I launched a new initiative in my school district: RocketCodes.

We are currently a BYOT district with a Chromebook initiative in place, but we’re getting a lot of pushback from staff on whether or not to continue allowing students to bring their smartphones to school. The common arguments apply, ranging from “phones are just a distraction” to “students only use their phones to text one another.”

Our band director and I disagree. We feel, for the most part, students have not been given a reason to use their phones in class. The problem with banning smartphones in class is it interferes with the education of students who want to use their smartphones for educational purposes. Furthermore, we feel the best way to find educational uses for smartphones and BYOT devices—in addition to Chromebooks or other devices a school district might provide—is to find out what students are using them for.

RocketCodes is our attempt to discover this, as well as take technology straight to the students. We hope to educate students and staff on the advantages of smartphones and tablets in the classroom, whether as a primary device or in association with a school-supplied 1:1 device.

Before we can make a final decision on the fate of BYOT in our district, we need data. To get data, we need to give the technology a fair shot.

This led to the creation of RocketCodes, which are simply QR codes linked to our RocketCodes website.

A RocketCode QR code in a hallway
A RocketCode QR code in a hallway

As part of a soft launch, I purchased a dozen cookies and left six each in our high school and junior high offices, then linked a QR code to the first RocketCodes blog post. Any student who scanned the code and visited the website on Thursday or Friday of this week was told to take their device to the building secretary, show her the website, and claim their cookie. We didn’t announce the contest, we only posted the QR code in a common area and waited.

On Thursday, we had no activity at the high school. At the junior high, I saw several students glance at the QR code but keep on walking. Our first-year English teacher, however, scanned the code and claimed a cookie for himself.

On Friday morning we moved the QR codes to different locations and put a simple hint in the announcements. In the high school, it only said, “Staff and Students: Win a free Caleri’s cookie! Yesterday, a clue was posted in the school.” At the junior high, we told the students, “Yesterday, Mr Fellner’s curiosity was rewarded with a Caleri’s chocolate chip cookie. There are five more cookies available. Keep your eyes open!” (Everybody in our district knows Caleri’s cookies can’t be beat, so it becomes a real incentive!)

All six cookies were claimed by 11am at the high school. At the junior high, it took until 2pm. One student actually took down the QR code during 1st hour and brought it to the office, thinking it must be related to the cookie. Because he hadn’t figured out how to scan a QR code by his last hour study hall, I’ll be giving him a lesson on QR code scanning and he’ll be rewarded with an alternate snack prize from our secretary.

A junior high cookie winner
A junior high cookie winner

Next week we’ll be doing a full launch and explaining the program to both students and staff. In the future we’ll be featuring tips on using smartphones and Chromebooks, app reviews, clever classroom uses, and occasionally fun videos and interviews with staff and students. Mystery and curiosity were not a tremendous incentive on Thursday, but the cookies sure generated some excitement. We hope the RocketCodes will be incentives themselves in the future.

If all goes well, maybe we’ll see a lot of BYOT uses in the classroom at last. If not, we can finally make an informed decision on handling smartphones in the classroom.

Accept Any File in Google Classroom

Categories: Media, The Classroom
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Published on: November 18, 2014

Many teachers like the idea of accepting homework through Google Classroom, but a common concern is accepting files from students who don’t use Google Docs, or accepting photos and files from other software.

Fear not! Google Classroom can handle this just fine. Set up an assignment as usual, and students will be presented with the option to upload files from Google Drive or from their computer.

I created my first one-take screencast to illustrate the process for those of you who haven’t tinkered with Classroom yet. It will demonstrate how to create the assignment, what it looks like on the student’s end, and then how the teacher can access the submitted assignments.

Got a student who feels more productive in Office or Pages? Using lab or math software that isn’t tied into Google Drive? No problem! Teachers can accept files in any format this way.

Teachers don’t even need the same software, as students can generate PDFs and turn those in instead. This will make things a lot easier for teachers who don’t want to install dedicated school software on home computers or who want to be able to view assignments on a tablet or smartphone.

If the student can create it, Google Classroom can collect it. Classroom makes organization and access a lot easier for teachers.

If You Can Print, You Can Make a PDF

Categories: The Classroom
Comments: 1 Comment
Published on: November 18, 2014

Google Docs, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, and Pages, oh my. Everyone has a favorite, and unfortunately they forget not everyone can open these files when they send attachments. I tell my staff to be sure to send PDF files to recipients. In most cases, the question comes back: “How do I make a PDF?”

I’m glad you asked.

First, many of these applications allow easy exporting to PDF. Google Docs can attach a PDF version of a Doc directly to an email. OpenOffice.org and Pages have PDF exports, and even Microsoft has caught up with the rest of the world (confirmed on Office 2011 on a Mac, anyway). These are your best option when available.

However, there are times students will be working in another app, such as a lab app, a desktop publishing app, or maybe a yearbook app, that doesn’t have native PDF generation or easy online sharing. The students or teachers then feel like printing is the only option.

Not true! If you can print, you can generate a PDF. Even users unfamiliar with PDF export options know how to print, so this is an easy solution for them as well. Let’s take a look at how it works on different platforms.

On a Chromebook (or in the Chrome browser)

Google was smart enough to build PDF printing right into Chrome, whether on a Chromebook or on a Chrome browser installed on your favorite desktop or laptop. This way, if students are working with online content that doesn’t have an easy sharing option, they can print to PDF and save it for themselves, drop it into a Drive or Dropbox folder, or email it to other students or teachers.

The print dialog in Chrome

Simply start the print job from the browser, then look for the “Save as PDF” option. If you see your printer listed instead, just click the Change button near the Destination option, as illustrated above. Then click the Save button, give the file a name, and select a folder, and voila, you’ve got a PDF.

On a Mac

Firefox user? Or printing from another app? No problem. Apple builds PDF creation right into their print dialog. You’ll see the PDF option in the lower left-hand corner of the print dialog box.

Apple's PDF options from the print dialog
Apple’s PDF options from the print dialog

You’ll see, too, that Apple offers several options for handling the PDF. You can open it in the Preview app for annotation, for example. It can also be sent via email, or dumped right into other applications. Evernote users can save data from lab software straight to a class notebook for analysis at home, which can be a big time saver.

On Windows

I feel for you, Windows users. Microsoft just doesn’t want to make this easy. Fortunately there are a plethora of developers willing to help you out! Simply install a PDF converter and you’re golden.

There are several options, free and paid, which install a PDF creator as a system printer. When you’re ready to generate a PDF, start the print job as normal, but choose your PDF converter as the printer and you’ll be prompted for a save destination for your file. Beats retrieving a slice of dead tree from a noisy box of gears, no?

I have always had good luck with CuteDPF Writer. It’s free, it’s easy to install, and it’s easy to use. Hit their website and you will see two components to install: the CutePDF Writer installer and the installer for Ghostscript, the interpreter. (Click the “Get Zipped Setup” link and you’ll get both files.) Simply run both installers and you’ll be up and running.

Don’t let software limitations derail your technology initiatives. Whether you’re looking for increased flexibility in collaboration and communication, a paperless workflow, or just to eliminate clutter, printing to PDF can solve a lot of problems.

Internet down? Punt.

Categories: Philosophy, The Classroom
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Published on: October 15, 2014

I knew I was in for a long day when the first email I read upon waking said our Internet connection was down. I called our provider, and sure enough they had outages all across central Illinois.

That’s when the panicked texts from teachers started rolling in.

"No Internet? Call an emergency day."
“No Internet? Call an emergency day.”

Yes, we’re more dependent upon the Internet with digital lessons and BYOT/1:1 initiatives. However, that doesn’t mean everything has to come to a standstill.

This morning I met with both of my 5th-grade classes, and I planned to do an assessment via Kahoot!, a game-like quiz site. I had two options:

  1. Cancel class and sit by a phone waiting for our ISP to call me back
  2. Use modern technology to solve a modern technology problem

Of course I chose #2. I simply set my smartphone up as a hotspot to serve up the quiz. Rather than try to shoehorn 20 connections through my phone, I divided the classes into teams and gave each team a Chromebook. My phone had no trouble handling the quiz and the responses, and in the end, the students had a lot more fun working in teams and choosing team names like the Geniuses, the Bananamen, and the Doughnuts!!! (emphasis theirs).

We had ten minutes left following the quiz. I didn’t have time or the resources to dig into Google Drive as I planned, so the kids requested to play the classic Heads-Up 7-up. I was reluctant to just make it free time because I only see them once a week. That’s when the students suggested anyone who gets selected has to answer a computer question to play.

I agreed, the kids had a blast, and it still turned into a teaching opportunity when we discussed the computer questions.

An Internet outage doesn’t have to be the end of class, yet it’s one of the first things people cite as an objection to going 1:1 or starting a BYOT initiative. I just counter the objection with similar questions:

  • What if there’s a fire drill that day?
  • What if there’s a surprise assembly?
  • What if half the class is out due to field trips or illnesses?
  • What if there’s a real emergency, like a fire or tornado?
  • What if the teacher was unprepared that day, or is out for a personal emergency or illness?

The answer is simple: class moves on. Whether we realize it or not, we’re always overcoming obstacles to teaching, and an Internet outage is no different.

Printing is Just a Bad Habit

Categories: Philosophy
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Published on: October 14, 2014

Printing is not about learning new processes or reinventing the wheel, it’s simply about breaking bad habits.

I sat down at a coworker’s desk the other day to work on her computer, and I found a stack of printed emails on one side of the desk. Most were simply one or two lines of text, and none of them had any additional notes or other information. Apparently that stack of paper is her reminder and to-do list, combined. Even without switching to her Google Calendar, or using an app like Todoist or Evernote, she was already paperless by leaving them in her inbox or sorting them into folders. She’s simply choosing to print because it’s what she’s used to.

Her case is not unusual, nor is it limited to education. My wife is a loan clerk, and she handles the paperwork for two loan officers. The bank has gone paperless with specialized software to manage all of their loan applications and related documents, making filing and searching easier. Meanwhile, her two bosses still print applications, even though they will probably never see that paper again because after their initial review, they will search the paperless system the next time they need the app. (And then they will probably print the app again.)

These are not needs, these are habits.

My coworker has dealt with hand-written notes for decades, and she replicated them with a printer. My wife’s bosses are used to reviewing loan applications by hand, so they hit that print button.

It’s pointless, it’s inefficient, and it’s wasteful. Until they treat this habit like any other bad habit that needs to be broken, there will not be any change.

The Fear of Throwing Things Away

Categories: Gadgetry
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Published on: June 5, 2014

I wandered past a stack of desks in the hallway and found two of these bad boys sitting on a small shelf unit with a pair of old, sun-faded computer speakers:

Spelling Ace... with Thesaurus! Oooh, aaahhh.
Spelling Ace… with Thesaurus! Oooh, aaahhh.

There’s a label on the back of each one bearing the name of a teacher who hasn’t been in this district for over ten years. One is missing a battery cover, and both have corrosion on the battery terminals.

I can imagine the conversation that surrounds these things. I’ve heard it many times over similar items:

Teacher 1: “Should we just throw these away?”

Teacher 2: “I don’t know. They’re probably still good.”

Teacher 1: “I’ve never used them, but they seem like they might be handy.”

Teacher 2: “Do you think they’re worth anything?”

Teacher 1: “I’m not sure. I’ll put them back in my desk drawer, just in case.”

Repeat every couple of years. Sound familiar?

I asked the current teacher in that classroom if these things had ever been used. Nope. I tossed them in the garbage.

Whether something is “still good” is not the question to ask. It’s too relative. Yes, the items may still work, but a better question is, “What have we replaced this with?” Or maybe, “Is this still an effective tool?”

Given today we have access to the Internet, most of our students carry Google in their pockets, and the teachers whose rooms these Spelling Aces were found in also have Chromebooks at their disposal, there’s no reason to keep these things around. I’d be willing to bet it would even take the teachers longer to figure out how to use these things than it would to open a browser window and hit Google or Reference.com.

What’s more, if a student is typing a paper on a Chromebook, is he going to pick up the Spelling Ace to look something up? Of course not.

We don’t need to be attached to such things. When I found some encyclopedia software dating back to 2003 in a lab cabinet the other day, I didn’t hesitate to throw it away. Same with the edutainment software from ’95 and the big stack of weather software CDs from ’99. Assuming they’d even work with our present systems (hint: nope), every one of those could be found more updated and with better presentation—for free—on the Internet.

Too much clinging to this old stuff creates clutter, and worse, it causes us to fail to grow.

Coming Soon: The Google Classroom

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Published on: May 7, 2014

Google yesterday announced their new Classroom product, a free learning management system for Google Apps schools. I think this is a natural evolution for what they’re trying to accomplish with GAFE, and I look forward to learning more about it.

I’ve tinkered with Promevo’s gScholar and looked at the Hapara LMS, and it seems Google is finally bringing the same functionality in natively. I imagine there will be premium features with the third-party LMS software which isn’t available in Classroom, but it may be Classroom is enough for most schools to get rolling.

I’ve signed up to be part of the preview. With luck I’ll be able to get some hands-on information soon.

“Stupid” Tech is a Matter of Perspective

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Published on: March 10, 2014

“Chromebooks are stupid.”

This is what one of our high school teachers told a group of students not long after we introduced staff members (this teacher included) to the Google Chromebook. He didn’t see the use of it, didn’t like the fact he could not install Microsoft Word on it, so he declared it stupid.

This is one of the biggest obstacles to technology adoption in the district I work for: teachers don’t see the use for a device, therefore it is useless.

What is not stupid? What already works. What they’ve been doing for years.

Last week, my 12-year-old son and I had a discussion about television. When he was born, I already had satellite and a DVR. He had access to 24-hour kids’ programming from networks like Disney, Nickelodeon, and the Cartoon Network, as well as whatever we recorded (and he got good at skipping commercials early). A few years ago our family became cordcutters, and he and his younger siblings are now used to watching their favorite shows on demand on Netflix and YouTube.

In short, they’ve always had TV available any time they wanted.

I explained to them it worked a bit different when I was a kid. We had a few cartoons before school started (at least in our market), and then there were cartoons after school until about 5pm. I told them how we used to look forward to Saturday morning cartoons for our biggest block of entertainment.

“So, you could only watch TV at certain times of day?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“That’s stupid.”

Wow. We certainly never thought so, but that was the technology and availability at the time. Compared to the way things work today, though, it would indeed be stupid for the networks to return to that setup.

It occurred to me, then, that “stupid” is just a matter of perspective.

What will these teachers think of their classrooms after we introduce technology? If we can get to the point every student has a device—any device—in hand daily, and they’re collaborating, communicating, and creating electronically, what will teachers think of their traditional pen and paper homework? Of having to compete for lab usage? Of spending prep time making photocopies? Of chasing down students for lost/missing homework?

To be clear, that’s not to say they’re doing anything “stupid” now. It works, and students are learning and getting their work done.

But what’s the role of technology? To make things easier. It streamlines processes and brings in new capabilities. If a teacher finds an electronic workflow that works for him, then maybe he has his own epiphany:

“Wow, why didn’t I start doing it this way sooner?”

I’ve seen it time and time again. The trick is bridging that gap in perspective.

Once we can get our staff across that gap, we’ll start seeing some real progress.

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