The possibilities of iBeacons

Beacons are brilliant. I’ve said this before. But the new updates and physical hardware are absolutely phenomenal.

Previously, beacons could ping content to a device automatically dependent on location, so you walk into a classroom and gain all the materials necessary for the lesson. Or you could have a location/project set up for extension work and the same for extra support. Our last open day had a quiz in Google Forms near the skeleton in the biology lab, and the solutions elsewhere. The teacher was getting the responses in realtime, so could react appropriately. Sometimes I forget how incredibly useful this can be for learning and AfL. But now we can do even more.

We can ping content to anyone who was in classroom X16 during period 1 on say, June 9th 2015, hours, days, months later. This is equally useful for sending follow up information after open days, off-timetable events and other extracurricular applications, including embedded google forms to collect your own data. For example, students that come to a lunchtime revision session, which may be student across several classes and even year groups, could be sent an Explain Everything with annotated slides from the session, or notified of follow up sessions.

Notifications and messaging are now available, building upon our google login structures – so the head of year 8 could instantly send a message to parents of that year group, with a notification on the home screen of their device, potentially replacing the rather hopeful sending out of emails lost in the morass of seemingly endless emails received every day. The sender can also collect data on who reads what, and even what time at which most were read. So a further tailoring or follow-up is facilitated. It is clear that we need to exert considerable care to regulate this feature, as saturation risks parents and students switching off both literally and figuratively. However, the ease of this feature has the potential to significantly reduce various admin tasks for senior management, teachers and support staff.

We were beginning to see the nascent growth of student editing of beacon content when last I wrote. So collaboration, feedback, development are all possible, either location-based or entirely independent of the physical beacon system. We can even set a time limit for editing – 7A may be able to edit during period 2 on Tuesdays, but at no other time, and then 7B can edit during period 3. The seamless integration with google drive and the other google apps for education is not just the icing on the cake, but really extends, if not obliterates, many boundaries.

Aside from embedded google forms, docs etc., improved ‘cards’ can automatically play audio when you enter a space, even if the app is only running in the background, and can be sent to specific people. So a year 7 walks into the library and can hear an interview with Jacqueline Wilson, and a year 11 philosophy student in the same space may hear a soundbite from Kant. These are so quick and easy to change that the digital realm can change daily, transforming and tailoring an identical space for different students at different times.

Other great card plugins include 3D models and widgets. So we could almost build in a virtual reality with panorama and other widgets – the student walks physically around the history classroom but is able to move around Ostia Antica in 500BC, with associated sounds and other interactions. We could even make it a treasure hunt, where they need to find beacons in a specific order, so maybe they need to find a Roman coin before they can enter the arena, because they are charged to get in (maybe here they would answer a quick question about the role of money and finance in Ancient Rome), or they need to hear the Latin speech in the forum and translate a section before they can find the Saepta to vote on the next emperor (who will of course be a member of the class). How cool is that?

Ostia Antica, Image by Livioandronico2013.
Imagine exploring Ostia Antica as you move around the classroom, with different features based on which subject you are studying and further Easter Eggs to unlock. Image by Livioandronico2013.

New hardware includes the exciting SensorTag, which has 11 different sensors which can send data and graphs through the same Bluetooth route as normal beacons. So you can collect and analyse data regarding ambient temperature, IR temperature, humidity, linear and gyroscopic movement, air pressure, light and more.This on its own is great for science experiments, but wait!

There’s more – the beacon can respond to changes in any of these readings and push content through. So you could have content layered – at its simplest perhaps responding to a change in light, or movement as a cupboard is opened by a Year 3 and sending them a little video or quiz, so a treasure hunt of collecting information or completing tasks becomes still more fun. For safety, a teacher could have notifications sent through to them if any beacon reaches a certain temperature or pressure while doing a science experiment. Geography departments could have grouped beacons from different schools around the world, tracking climatic or even seismic changes. Or you could automatically send a grumpy cat meme to the rest of your class when the humidity level reaches a certain point. Returning to Ostia Antica, a change in temperature may unlock the summer quarters, or Latin phrases to discuss the weather.

Image by Christie Dutton
At humidity of 73% or upwards, out comes this image by Christie Dutton

I could happily sit here for hours thinking about the extended opportunities for learning provided by the iBeacons. Yes, some features are offered by other apps – messaging or datalogging, for example, and yes, there is a certain amount of front-loading your preparation. But the ease of use and the range of tools provided within this one tool, this one app? It blows my mind!

Digitisation and digital pedagogy

 

On a joint edtech project with a teacher recently, I was told ‘I am happy for you to choose the pictures.’ Whether or not this teacher was intentionally insulting is beside the point –  it is not the first time I have heard the digitisation debate seeming reduced to a largely irrelevant aesthetic choice. There seems to be this relatively common misconception about the purposes and processes of digital education. This could be addressed on two levels – resource design and teaching design.

This quote from the OU Innovating Pedagogy 2013 encapsulates the importance of pedagogy for educational technology.

 

Digitisation and digital pedagogy in edtech design

One of the best edtech tools from my point of view is Anki. Visually a hangover from the 1990’s, Anki is a flashcard app/website that uses spaced repetition to support language learning. Card collections are made by users (although these can be shared) with an apparently not very interactive interface. Where Anki shines as a resource is

  • The nuances of labelling your degree of confidence in a term – you can choose ‘again’, ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’ with each response tailoring the spacing of the repetition of the card.
  • The statistics option is quite sophisticated while being simply presented – you are given a series of graphs – a forecast of reviews due for the next month, an analysis of the review time taken to answer cards (whether young (new) or mature, average study time per session, number of times you have pressed the again/hard/good/easy buttons (and a time analysis – mine seem to be best between 9-10pm). So for metacognitive ‘study-skills’ then, Anki stands out.
  • For languages of more than one script (e.g. Japanese or Chinese), it creates a card for each script + the audio, so that you are testing, for example, hiragana and kanji recognition and listening skills and connecting this learning between the cards and to the English translation.

 

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None of these features need particularly innovative technology. There are no animations and few pictures. It doesn’t offer badges or leaderboards. It might not be the first example you might use to show someone the possibilities of the digital world. But, it serves as an excellent model for how digital tools can be designed to support learning. As a manifestation of a sound digital pedagogy approach, I think Anki is great.

 

Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching.

Sean Morris

Designing edtech resources from a digital pedagogy approach is not about adding pictures, or animations or, God forbid, Word Art. It’s not even really about the digital technology. It’s certainly not about design aesthetics. Unless the digital tools, or the additions enhance, extend and inspire learning, they are at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. I certainly add pictures and interactive layers to the content I develop. But as with any educational decision, this is based not on any aesthetic choice, but rather on how much educational value these layers provide.

 

This is where the critical thinking aspect of pedagogy comes in, both for tool and teaching design and practice. Does this interactive diagram clarify mitosis? If not, can it be made educationally relevant and useful? How can I develop this resource so that it helps students? How can I use it with students to help them learn and grow?

 

 

Digitisation and digital pedagogy in teaching design

What we must try, as schools, as educators, as learners, is not simply using tools, nor rolling out the whizz-bang jazz hands apps to impress students or observers.

 

If that means using a pen and paper because your students are revising something and you believe that memory and cognitive gains are promoted by written tasks, then you’re on the right lines for a digital pedagogy approach, just as much as if you choose to use some app in an innovative way to explore and extend learning. If, however, you are using pen and paper because you couldn’t be bothered with collecting in an Explain Everything task, or because you’ve always done this task with pen and paper, that is clearly not pedagogically sound. Equally, if you are using an iPad app just because they’re there, or in hopes of impressing an observer, without considering the aims, processes or consequences of using the app, that too is failing in digital pedagogy.

 

We need to systematically examine both tools and teaching for their learning value. In this way, teaching and learning drives the use of technology, rather than the converse.

 

Reference:

Morris, S. (2014) What is digital pedagogy? [online] Available at: http://learning.instructure.com/2014/03/what-is-digital-pedagogy/ 

Textbooks and tech-books – Can there be only one winner?

Having taught Physics, I am aware that the use of textbooks in STEM lessons is the exception rather than the rule. Even before the advent of digital technology in the classroom, Lunzer and Gardner (1979) observed that less than 10% of an average STEM lesson was spent reading. Of this time, over 90% was in bursts of less than 10 seconds, primarily reading from the board, worksheets or posters and NOT from textbooks. Wellington and Osborne (2001) note a similar trend. In 2011, I decided to test this myself, and observed less than 9% of lesson time was spent in reading, with a average of 1 minute 9 seconds reading the textbook per 40 minute Sixth Form lesson, of the lessons in which the textbook was actually used at all. Now, this is clearly not generalisable even to other STEM lessons, let alone to other subjects. But I do seriously question the financial sense of buying textbooks that are virtually unused. I would love to be challenged on this point – I would love to find out that every other STEM teacher in the country integrates literacy more into their lessons. My whole doctoral research is predicated on the conviction that literacy and language is crucial to learning science. However, I do question that traditional textbooks are the way to promote literacy.

Textbooks are cheaper on a singular basis, are not subject to the whims of wifi access and battery and are more likely to survive a few splashes of hydrochloric acid and other classroom hazards. Certainly, textbooks have a longevity, a permanence, a physical presence. There are many contexts in which a paper-based textbook is more appropriate and supports learning more than an electronic resource, as electronic resources currently exist. However, the very permanence of textbooks renders them prone to rapid outdating (especially when the curriculum seems to change every time you turn around) and inflexibility. You can do many more things, learn many more things, with a tablet than you can with a textbook. Educational resource availability is increasing exponentially online, with a quaquaversal array of communities and individuals creating and communicating good practice, resources and insights.

Textbooks vs. Tech-books
Textbooks vs. Tech-books

However, educational research into edtech has an unfortunate lag time in many cases – several recent journal articles I have read define ebooks as any digital text, including pdf versions of paper textbooks (even scanned versions). So, I am distinguishing here the concept of tech-books, which use a digital pedagogy to promote and enhance learning through the educationally relevant integration of electronic resources. Rather than solely textual delivery, tech-books include audio, video and interactive elements, where and as appropriate, to support learning. Currently, there is little research that directly indicates gains in reading comprehension or content learning through ebooks. However, given that this research suffers from an outdated definition of ‘ebook’, it is unsurprising that no difference in reading comprehension between textbooks and ebooks has yet been formally reported. That does not mean that tech-books, with enriched content chosen for learning and not for novelty, do not offer gains unavailable through textbooks, as outlined in the table above. All it means is that we need to keep testing, keep trying, keep learning about the tech and about our teaching.

Edtech is not about pushing digital resources, or about jumping onto a bandwagon dictated by management. It is about trying to improve the learning experiences of teacher and student. But if we don’t learn, we can’t teach. Experiment, explore and evaluate the available tech-books and textbooks and make a decision based on the needs of your students for a specific lesson and context, rather than deciding that every lesson must (or must not) be digitally based. That said, to effectively teach is to effectively learn and that is why I try to constantly learn about new pedagogies, new tools, new contexts for learning; to be a digital experimentalist and explorer rather than a digital evangelist.

The centre of education must always be learning, and that is always what we try to promote, in the most effective ways available to us – textbooks, tech-books, whatever works for your learners, in your classroom, with your level of confidence and training. If there can be only one winner, it must be student learning.

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References:

Lunzer, E., & Gardner, K. (1979). The effective use of reading.

Wellington, J., & Osborne, J. (2001). Language and literacy in science education. McGraw-Hill International.

iBeacons and the Great War

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Imagine walking in the trenches of world war one, constructed in a student library. As you touch the torn sandbags, from your iPad rings the rattle of gunfire interrupting soldiers singing. As the sound dies – ominously – away, crouch down and read letters written by soldiers and their families. Stained with the dirt and dust and desperation of the front, they appear on your screen, with even tear-stains reproduced.

Imagine moving over to an Edwardian fire-place, with the tin soldiers, newspapers and photographs of a typical family home surrounding you. Here you could settle down to explore recipes and patterns from World War 1, with all the privations of rationing and shortages, knit socks as if for a soldier with trench foot.

Imagine seeing the uniform of a soldier, decorated with images of family by a student who never knew her ancestor. And while you see and feel the rough uniform, imagine the loss of loved ones. From your iPad sounds the measured lines of Dulce et Decorum est, recorded and animated by our students, in memory of the sacrifices of a generation.

Just imagine what we can do to bring learning to life today. Just imagine what we can do tomorrow.

Religion in the science classroom

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 14.49.55

 

Not that anyone asked, but I disagree with the above tweet. It’s not what you think though – I’m not for a second advocating teaching creationism in place of or even in parallel with evolution. Nor am I trying to placate fundamentalists. However, trying to remove religion from science is akin to trying to remove people from science – impossible and, ultimately, unscientific.

 

Tyson emphasises the importance of scientific literacy. Scientific literacy, although problematic to define, is a vital goal for science education. It is impossible to be fully scientifically literate without an awareness of the cultural and other factors driving the research and discoveries of science. Ignoring the contextual motivators and filters of both scientists and students neglects a crucial variable in scientific experimentation.

 

Take, for example, Albert Einstein, who epitomises science and scientists for many people; a phenomenal scientist and thinker. However, he disliked the concept of quantum mechanics, dismissing it with the statement below. Brought up by secular Jewish parents, he later described himself as agnostic. However, his views of God, whether explicitly rooted in a particular religion or not, may have influenced his repudiation of quantum theory, as indicated by this quote:

God doesn’t play dice.

Rather than attempting to distance science from humanity in the classroom, students should be familiarised with the gloriously messy nature of science, people and all. Quantum mechanics itself can be applied here – Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle outlines the impossibility of measurement without changing the observed quantity or object.

 

While the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, the creationist lobby can also quote scientific (or pseudo-scientific) studies. It is difficult to resist the seduction of figures and data surrounding us, not only from religious bodies but from businesses, governments and countless other sources. Statistics just seem so reassuringly solid, don’t they? But all is not as it seems. Critical thinking, a vital part of scientific literacy, is needed to wade through the initially persuasive numbers no matter their source. We ourselves, as readers, also carry our own preconceptions, religious or otherwise that may influence our integration of the scientific information into our world view. So, students need to be encouraged to consider cultural, societal and religious impetuses in order to fully evaluate concepts and make scientific decisions.

 

By all means, lets bring religion into the science classroom. Accept that scientists are people and not Gods, and are thus, sadly, often fallible. That’s okay, but instead of pretending that we shed all earthly thoughts when conducting experiments, students (and teachers and scientists and everyone else) need to evaluate external and internal influences.  It is important to aim for value-free science, of course, but scientifically literate citizens must be conscious of the potential influences of religious and other societal contexts on the scientist and on themselves. We might not be able to fully understand or control these influences, but critical assessment of these variables can only improve scientific literacy. So, in respectful disagreement with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am convinced that, in relevant science lessons, evaluation and discussion of religious doctrine can promote scientific literacy.

Handwriting and Exams

Exam season is (finally) starting to wind down. Actually, I had an exam myself this week for an English Literature module I’ve been doing with the OU. As with many people, it’s been some years since I have handwritten anything more than a sentence intended for eyes other than my own.  As I left the exam hall, with aching and inky fingers, I wondered why our methods of examination seem to be so disjointed, not only from the reality of everyday life but even from classroom experiences.

 

A large proportion of students do the greater part of their revision on computers or tablets, if not their actual classwork. This has been the case for many years – even 10 years ago I wrote most of my school essays on the computer.The use of technology in the classroom is advancing in exciting directions and constantly developing – assessment (formative and summative), videos, simulations, showcasing of student work, iBooks, MOOC’s – the possibilities are endless. So, if students hardly handwrite in the classroom, I am not convinced of the purpose of examination through this means. If nothing else, a typed essay is significantly quicker and easier to mark. A typed submission also enables easy editing – no more angrily crossed out misspellings or arrows squiggling across pages to insert further thoughts, no bringing five pens, a pencil, two rulers and a calculator just in case. And won’t somebody please think of the trees?

 

I am in no way against the value of handwriting, especially in Early Years. Handwriting has been demonstrated to assist in the development of fine motor skills, memory and other cognitive gains. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated higher levels of retention and comprehension when written notes are taken rather than typed notes. For recalling factual information, writing is a quick and easy way to solidify memories. So, for the sciences, handwriting may always have an important role, and not only because there is, to my knowledge, no quick way of noting equations digitally. However, for essay-heavy subjects such as English or Philosophy, where the emphasis is so much more subjective and interpretive, digital notes are quicker, easier and tick all the boxes.

 

Nonetheless, penmanship is an art – my grandfather creates calligraphy that is beautiful to behold. Not only is it an art, but it has vital cultural connotations. Different scripts with different languages or even accentual details communicate cultural and community identities. So, yes, handwriting is something to be preserved and valued. If handwriting is an art, or is deemed culturally significant, perhaps a debate regarding its place in the curriculum is in order.

 

However, it appears to me that we have two options – students continue to come out of exams in physical pain from the quantity of writing they have to do, or lose valuable lesson time teaching handwriting purely for the purposes of an arguably outdated form of examination. Not to mention the lost marks due to an indecipherable scrawl – some of the most able students are the most frustrating in terms of legibility.  It is also worth noting that the recent headlines about the importance of handwriting were evidenced primarily by a survey conducted by BIC, with a clear vested interest in promoting the declining art. Exams are hugely stressful and demanding experiences for students, teachers and examiners already, without insisting on an increasing outmoded form of notation. Exams should reflect and assess what is going on in the classroom. Handwriting is no longer an automatic part of the learning process and its use in the examination process therefore must be re-evaluated.

 

 

Related

 

A literature curriculum “cabined, cribbed, confined”

Three-quarters of the books on the government directed GCSEs, which will be unveiled this week, are by British authors and most are pre-20th century.

 

I am absolutely stupefied. Not so much on the specific choice of books – of mice and men, for example, has been on the syllabus for a very long time and a change is no doubt in order. But this Orwellian dictation of choice scares me on two levels.

 

Firstly, literary merit. There are many valuable pieces of literature from pre-20th century Britain – the Brontes, Shakespeare, Dickens and so on. Many of these texts changed forever their literary forms. However, the forms have indeed changed. Compare, for example, Wordsworth’s Daffodils with Ted Hughes’ poem of the same name. While both poems describe experiences relating to daffodils, the language and techniques result in drastically different effects. Although, almost by definition, the Conservative party wants to return to an earlier era, the techniques and themes of modern literature are never going to return to what they was, and nor should they; literature both mirrors and shapes the society within which it is formed.

 

We know that Conservatives are not really fans of a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. But to virtually obliterate ethnic and international voices in this way is actually terrifying. To quote from To Kill a Mockingbird (one of the books struck from the list):

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Books help us to experience other perspectives, other views, other cultures. To censor in this way is not just counter-productive in terms of literary study, it is morally repugnant – every culture and community  deserves a voice and every student deserves to experience cultures beyond their own.

 

If we want to reduce racism, instead of blindly blaming immigrants for every social issue, texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird are vital. If the only literature that students read are the patriarchal, white texts that dominate pre-20th century British literature, those one-sided views are insidiously promoted.

 

Mr Gove, while I recognise the importance of valuing one’s own culture, and the natural nostalgia you may feel for the texts you read in your own school days, please accept the power that literature has to shape thought and culture. Much as a democratic and open society is richer for having a plurality of perspectives and cultures, so too is our curriculum.

Related

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