Sunday, September 30, 2007

Skrbl - An online, collaborative whiteboard

A few days ago I blogged about an activity I'd run a couple weeks back and my desire to reduce some of the lectures I've given to increase student involvement and to make the whole affair a bit more meaningful to the kids. We, of course, know that when students DO, they are more likely to retain what they've done. One of my hopes was to make the activity even more asynchronous, active, and collaborative: make the kids less passive, make me even less of a gatekeeper and let the information develop and disseminate as the students located it using the resources available to them.

Immediately after that activity, I started looking for different options that would allow the students to record their findings as they came across them. I wanted something that was "live" and evolving. I wanted something that would allow posting, immediate display, and might encourage the kids to go look up something they had seen posted. I wanted something that would be easy to use for the kids. My CFF coach Laurie V happened by my room that same day, and I asked her for some ideas. We bantered around some initial ideas.

A wikispace was dismissed fairly quickly because of issues my co-workers had with multiple edits happening at the same time. Google Docs came up, but did I really want to take the time to get user names and passwords set up or have the students do so? For some reason I can no longer remember, SubEthaEdit was also ruled out. Free was definitely a concern as well as was the ability of up to 25 students (and perhaps as many as 30 in the future) to access at the same time.

A week passed, and I was coming up on my next novel introduction. It was time to get serious about this new approach I wanted to try. Enter SKRBL. (Get it yet?)

I don't know whether Laurie V mentioned this first (Laurie definitely mentioned something, but I inadvertently deleted that email) or I came across it over at, but SKRBL definitely fit the bill. SKRBL (still thinking?) is an on-line interactive whiteboard that allows users to do all kinds of free hand and typed scribbling. (Ah, finally got it! Don't worry, it took 30 minutes before it dawned on me.) Free with no limit on simultaneous users, I thought I'd found my solution. As a bonus, boards can be either open to the public or password protected and saved as a static web-page for future reference when an activity is over. This was perfect!

So, last Wednesday night I set off to give it a field test. I created an account (very fast!) and set up both a public and password protected board. I drafted several fellow Twitterers (Thanks Chris C., Elisha, Kirk, and hmm, who else was it?) to give it a run. Up to three of us were on the public board at once, and I got a feel for how the password protected pages worked too. Granted three users was a far cry from 25, so I was just going to have to try it under real world conditions to see what would happen.

Friday morning, 8:00 a.m. was zero hour, and for some stupid reason, I invited some administrators by to see it in action. (What was I thinking? I'd never done this before!) Anyhow, I got laptops in the kids hands, explained the task, discussed the approach, and the kids were off and running. The activity ran pretty smoothly, except some of the kids couldn't initially post to the board. I thought we'd reached the limit of the site's capabilities at about ten users, but note this: Skrbl must be run using either IE 6 or 7 or Firefox 1.5 or 2.0; Safari on a go. I projected the board from my laptop, and it was just incredible to watch the kids and the content start popping up on the board. Check out what 19 kids did in about 30 minutes here (a saved, static record of our work).

What would I do differently? The kids got in to playing with different text colors after awhile to make their notes stand out. When, in the middle of the activity, it struck me that I wanted different kinds of information color coded, I was pretty much screwed. In the future, perhaps I'll start have the kids start with black text and have the color coding happen later, or I'll just start with some color-coded categories from the get go. Still have to work on my direction giving for the paper support notes: I thought I made it clear I wanted facts recorded with citations as evidence of individual work. I'm going to have to work on a visual example for this I guess. Otherwise, I'm very pleased with how this activity ran (we'll see about the admin. on Monday), and Skrbl has a major fan in me!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Replacing a Lecture

About a week and a half ago, I was coming up on introducing the novel Of Mice and Men to my juniors. I absolutely hate introducing novels because I'd not found any way to do this beyond lecture. Don't get me wrong, when a novel is being started, it very valuable to know something about an author and his circumstances to understand the context of the novel: Why did an author write it? What had the author experienced that might be in the novel? What was going on in the world at the time? These global questions often act as a nice framework to begin talking about the work. However, those lectures were deadly.

It finally hit me the period before this introductory lecture (better before than after!): why not have the kids research and document the information? The laptops were available and unscheduled for that time, so I decided to jump off a cliff and give it a go.

I started the activity by setting the framework that knowing about an author and his background can often lead to an understanding of the novel. I gave them the author's last name, the name of the novel, and 20 minutes. They were off and researching! My only insistence this first time out was to record their individual finds on paper, so I could track individual participation. Of course, I monitored their progress as well be circulating the classroom.

Five minutes later...time to have a talk about web site selection; can you believe everything on any website? Who can you trust? Can you trust Wikipedia? (Yes, Wikipedia was an early stop.)

Twenty minutes later, I started recording the kids' findings on the interactive whiter board as they threw them out. They found every major fact that I would have given in lecture (except the formal name of his style), and when I told them this, they were amazed. I wrapped up by defining realism and talking with them about which facts tied in to that concept. We had set the stage for what Steinbeck brought to his writing and how it might have affected the outcome.

What would I do differently?
  • I definitely need to be more clear in insisting on the note taking; I've got to have some record of what the kids find and where they have been.
  • Hmmm, where they've been: must have the kids cite their sources. At what site did they find the content they found? Can it be corroborated on another site? Was it?
  • Wouldn't it be cool to have the kids put their findings on the board live as they find them? Waiting to the end was effective, but might it be even more powerful to have this happening live?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

iClick, youClick: Clickers for learning

Last January, three of us on staff (myself, Justin & Koren) got a grant proposal together to buy and test the use of Classroom Response Systems (CRS) in our high school. We were quickly supported by our building principal and the folks in our tech. department, but alas, the wheels of progress were slow. We didn't get word of our grant approval until April (it was a district level grant, and I'd hoped for a quick response), and until the items were ordered and shipped, school was out.

Fast forward to the start of this school year, and we have the systems and are already plotting out various uses for them. Here's what can be reported so far:

We went with a company called iClicker. Started by a group of college professors, they worked under the premise that the technology shouldn't become intrusive; instead, it should just be a natural add-on, almost working in the background without being seen. Let me tell you, am I glad we went with this company.

The learning curve is quick. You can literally start the software and start using it right away with anything. Yes, ANYTHING. You can have a PowerPoint running and pop in a multiple choice question to check the kids understanding of a concept. You can have questions in a word processing document and scroll through the questions as you poll the kids. Heck, you can even handwrite a question on your interactive white board and use that as a polling question! The key to this product is that a screen shot is taken at the conclusion of each polling session, so the results of the question are linked directly to the question. Easy to add new questions on the fly.

Answers are collected by the RF (radio frequency) base station, and the instructor can see the results right away. On the projection screen, a timer runs (either up or down) while the count of respondents counts up. The instructor then has the choice to show the class the polling results or to keep them private. And although I haven't tried it yet, there's the potential to transfer grades to our grade book program.

They'll definitely be follow-ups to this post as we explore uses for the iClicker. I'm hoping to invite Justin & Koren to guest blog on their experiences as well.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

30 minute technology project

I had my doubts.

I was pretty sure what I was asking the kids to accomplish was doable, but I had my doubts.

I'd even done a dry run at an in-service I'd taught for other high school staff members; they had accomplished a very similar task in just about 30 minutes. At the inservice, I had advocated that technologically based products didn't need to take days to complete. I knew the theory was sound; however, there was still this lingering doubt about a practical, classroom application.

The students' task: take a picture of themselves using the on-board cameras on the MacBooks, send it to iPhoto, and create a postcard that told me something about them, so I could get to know them. All right, not a sound curricular connection, but my point in doing this on the second day of class was to give the kids an idea of the type of things I would be asking them to do during the coming semester. I wanted them to understand that class would pace quickly and that they would sometimes have to think quickly to accomplish a task.

The entire activity took 40 minutes instead of my planned 30, but this was well within the time frame I hope to accomplish some future projects. The extra time was a result of a quick demonstration of how to work through the process (I created a postcard of myself), brainstorming some items to share with me, and some technical difficulties we experienced as a result of new Internet filters and authentication software installed in the district this summer. All in all, I'm calling this one a resounding success.

What will make this activity work? A clear set of expectations set out as the students set off to work on a project: let them know what you (the teacher) expects to see as an end result. Be specific. Be precise. And tell the kids the time limit.

I'm anxious to try this now with a curricular connection and will be doing so this upcoming week when the students do character postcards based on a character from Of Mice and Men. But more on that later when I can report how that activity works out.