Sunday, January 29, 2006

Workshops or Assignments

I've been exploring Moodle's workshop module. For now, I learned it is too complicated for me to use with my current essay assignments. I really love the idea that students would be scoring and commenting on their own and two other students' essays based on the rubric I gave them. Unfortunately, I had trouble getting it working and in the interest of time, I switched it to an assignment. Now I see that for this point in our Moodle experience, that was wise. It is the next step up in terms of complexity. I think after students understand how to upload files and better understand scoring writing projects with a rubric, then we will be ready for a real online workshop.

Even just doing this as an assignment, I'm loving the interactions that Moodle allows. When I try to conference personally with 26 kids, it doesn't work. The other students are not focused enough to be gainfully employed while I conference, and the face to face conference isn't giving me all the impact that I want. Students generally enjoy the feedback, but it doesn't often lead to improvements in their writing.

With the assignment module, I am able to leave students replies, either inline or separately. I am also able to give them a score that I can change later. This is good for students since they can refer to the comments as much as needed, and the comments don't get lost. It is good for me since I can write the replies outside of class, freeing me for lots of mini-classes during class time.

Moodle Grades

I've been a slow learner this week. Although I know about our browser woes, I started new discussions with students in their private forums that we are using as journals. I ended up with sad children who thought I hadn't written back to them because they couldn't see the second message since Internet Explorer mashes all of the links together. I finally figured out what was going on and happiness reigns once more.

I did my first grading in Moodle. Since I will be coordinating the environmental ed trip next year, I set up two forums. One is for students to tell me what was great about this year's trip; these are the things I shouldn't change. The second forum is for discussing ways to make the trip better.

My initial standards are quite low. If they successfully posted in both forums, and their post was at least remotely on topic, they earned full points. The grading itself was easy. In the forum set up, I designated how many points were possible and that I was the only one who could give grades. Now when I read a response, there is a drop down menu to let me select the score. The students don't see that option.

If I had allowed them to give grades as well, there are all sorts of interesting options. They could grade each other's comments in regards to relevance or with points. The Moodle can even do some fancy score balancing if numerous scores are given for one response.

For now we kept it simple. I scored the responses that were submitted. The next day, I showed the children how to access their grades primarily so they had an easy was to see if they had posted in both forums. They seemed to like checking their grades, especially since they were getting such good ones.

I don't keep my main gradebook online yet, but this lets me see the power in doing that. I think there is some sort of plug in that would allow me to post my Easy Grade Pro records online with parent passwords. I may look into that for next year, even though that really ups the pressure on me.

In any case, I once again had children pouring over each other's responses, and when their computers allowed them to do so, they left replies. This still enchants me since the children reading through all these responses are so often the ones who refuse to read during our silent reading time, and refuse to write on writing assignments. I hope they never figure out that these ARE reading and writing assignments.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Browser Blues

One step forward, two steps back...

Our step forward was that our wonderful technician put Netscape on the old computers in lab B while we were gone at camp last week. Those that are running Mac OS 9.2 are now working well in Moodle using Netscape.

The steps backward come on the oldest computers. Those running Mac OS 8.0 or 8.1 still aren't working well. If students try to post anything, they run into trouble in Netscape because the post button is missing. In Internet Explorer, the posting works fine, but they can't read anyone else's posts because all the post links are smack on top of each other, making it impossible to reach more than the first one or two posts.

Amazingly, the students are making it work. Despite the computers being really slow and them needing to toggle between browsers, they are managing to post and respond. They like Moodling enough to hang in there, ploughing through the difficulties.

I like that they are getting so comfortable with computers, with online environments, with troubleshooting. More importantly, I like that we are now hearing from everyone. When I post a forum question, everyone responds instead of just a few kids. On top of that, lots of the kids receive responses to their ideas. This is in great contrast to a typical fifth grade discussion in which a majority of the kids are so busy thinking about what they want to say next that they aren't listening to what anyone else is saying.

So maybe I need to revise what I said. Maybe it isn't one step forward and two back. Maybe with all this shuffling, side stepping and spinning around, we are getting somewhere. It's a strange dance, but it seems to suit us.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Which Wiki? or The Trouble Without Email

My friend and colleague John approached me for suggestions regarding an upcoming web project he plans to undertake with his class of fourth and fifth students. He was planning on having them create posters to share information about alternative energy at the end of their energy unit. He then wanted them to be able to easily share that information on the web so that families could see and possibly even respond to it. He was going to create web pages, as he has in the past, but wondered if blogs would better fit the task since families would be able to leave comments.

I pondered it and told him the answer was none of the above. He should use a wiki. I quickly showed him PBWiki and Wikispaces. He looked unconvinced; he's a busy guy and didn't really want to take the time to learn this new tool since he was wishing he'd started the projects LAST week.

I argued that since he was going to set up the entire web site as a template, the kids weren't gaining much in the way of skills. If they used a wiki instead, they would be part of the read/write web because they could do the work themselves and other people could leave them comments. As Clarence has found, they would probably go home and start creating wikis of their own.

To better convince him and to get up to speed for my own upcoming student projects, I decided to set up a How to Wiki wiki for him. I poked around with the various wiki hosting options to see which would best meet our needs. John and I have identified three key criteria for our wikis.
  1. They need to be readable by families and other schools.
  2. They need to be protected to some degree from spam, but still allow outsiders to leave comments.
  3. They need to track who makes what changes, so we can track malicious editing back to the person who did it.
Here's what I've learned so far.
There is a wiki in Moodle, but from what I can tell, it is safely locked up inside the Moodle, so it fails to meet the first criteria.

PB Wiki meets the first two criteria. Wikis can be viewed by anyone, but we can restrict editing privileges to only those people who have our passcode. This would keep out spam bots, but would fail criteria #3.

Wikispaces meets all three criteria, but at a price. Each child receives a separate invite. Accepting the invitation makes them a member of Wikispaces and of our wiki. Since each child is a separate member, the wiki can track which user makes which changes.

It sounds perfect, but it is at this point, that I once again run up against the thorn that keeps jabbing me this year; we don't have student email addresses.

I could use a service such a, but this will involve getting parent permission. Since we don't plan to use the addresses for correspondence, this sounds like a lot of hassle.

I could create them on my BlueHost account. I think my subscription allows me to create 2500 email accounts. This could be almost as safe as accounts, since I could set them up in such a way that all messages must stay on the server. However, it will be tedious work to do this for 50 users.

I know that with my mail application on my computer, I can tell the program whether to leave messages on the server or to download them to my computer. I wonder if that can be over-ridden by settings on the actual mail server. If it can, then even if the students tried to use their email addresses, I could monitor them. This is important both because I don't want to give the world unlimited contact with my fifth graders. I also don't want to give my students unsupervised access to each other. Some of them are still at the nasty note writing stage. I don't want to give them another tool to use for that, since the tool isn't going to be in use for positive activities as well.

How does everyone else deal with this need for student email accounts when setting up Moodles, blogs, wikis and other shared online spaces? Please share with me how you have overcome this problem.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Motivation to Moodle

Lately I've been doing a bit of soul-searching about why I am battling to bring blogs, wikis, Moodle, and online calendars to my students. I can tell that some of the people I am annoying in my district think I'm inserting technology where none is needed.

Then I read this quote from Bud's blog...
One of the most frustrating parts of teaching and assigning writing is that I can't read, digest, and respond to everything that I ask my students to do in as timely a manner as I would like. By the time I get to some papers, students have moved on to other thoughts, ideas, and assignments, and the opportunity that might have existed to push a particular student's thinking in a new direction has moved on.

That sums up one of the reasons I want to do this. Not only can I respond much more quickly when I can do it online, but the Moodle and the blog make it possible for others besides me to give them feedback. To that end, we posted our essays into Moodle and students have begun commenting on each other's work.

I am pleased with their comments. Most students responded to the content of the piece. A few even commented on the writing itself. Thus far, the comments seem more focused and useful than the student-led peer conferencing we have done. Those tend to leave the writing far behind as their conversation wanders off to football, video games, and who likes who.

Failing the Moodle Quiz

All right, between getting ready for our upcoming environmental ed trip, and working such long hours to get the Moodle running while still teach all my courses, I've been only averaging a few hours of sleep per night all week. That is my only defense...

On Thursday we went into the creaky old lab to try taking the weekly spelling tests in Moodle. On one hand, using Moodle for spelling tests seem like a true waste of bandwidth. On the other hand, it takes me 30-40 minutes to give the spelling tests since there is more than one group and I must spell all the words aloud as we correct. Then I must recorrect them since quite a few of the children either don't really care, or, they care enough to be dishonest. In light of all of that, taking the weekly spelling test in Moodle seemed like a way to free up more of my time for more worthwhile things.

To that end, I used the quiz module to set up a spelling test for each group. I used the short answer portion of the module. I still have to dictate the words and they enter them in. However, when they finished the test, they could instantly see their results, which according to brain research, is key for making the test a learning experience.

Of course, there are not enough working computers in the old lab for all the children to take the quiz at the same time, so I had one group go first. At first the children had a bit of trouble with the interface until one discovered they could tab to the next field rather than try to scroll using the slowly responsive arrow keys. Kids kept getting lost and we'd go back to to catch them up. At long last, that group finished and submitted their answers only to find that they had all received a score of 0/20 and they couldn't see their itemized results. Scrambling to salvage the situation, I told them to print, but of course, after the third child, the old printer ran out of toner. Admitting temporary defeat, I had the second group take their turns at the computers, and they all had the same scores as the previous group. I told them all not to worry. It was a problem of my creating and they would not be penalized for it.

That night I went into Moodle to figure out why it hadn't worked since it was working so perfectly the night before when I tested it. It was at that point I sheepishly discovered that the Moodle quiz had worked just fine. All the problems were my fault. For the first group I had entered the wrong words. For the second group, I had the correct words but I had them in the wrong order. I couldn't figure out why they couldn't see their itemized results-- it was working fine now. I made the appropriate changes and the next day we retested.

The newer lab was available and all went smoothly except that half the children received an error from the Moodle server saying it was too busy to let them in. This is strange since I've had them all in before, but no matter. We once again tested in two groups and all went smoothly except for the child in the second group who was still logged in as the first group. Oops.

Listening to the children talk, they seemed to like taking the test on the computer, even though a few made typos -- I find they make typos even when writing by hand (c: I'll use the informal survey module at some point to see how they feel about online spelling tests after they've had more experience.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mucking Around with Moodle Settings

Instead of being a dutiful teacher and getting caught up in my correcting last night. I added the rest of our students to the Moodle. I had some trouble getting the csv file to upload, but it worked eventually.

Next I spent time playing around with the themes. My thought was to see which themes made it easiest for the students to locate information on the page. Some were definitely more legible than others. I finally settled on a different theme for each course so that the students and I could more easily keep track of them. And then I clicked something that reset all of them to the same theme. Such is life.

Finally, I experimented further with the quiz module. I found I could export a quiz that I made into a text format. Then I could easily make changes to it and upload it again as a new quiz. Much less tedious than entering them each question individually.

We'll try out the new quizzes tomorrow when we take our weekly spelling tests. I truly hate spelling tests; even using the developmental programs, I don't feel that we get enough out of them to warrant the time they take. If Moodle can shorten the time we spend administering and scoring the tests, then it will be yet another Good Thing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

First Lessons Learned in Moodle

Day one of Moodling was a success. I assigned my students the following tasks:
  • Log in
  • Go into the Journal course so you can write back to me in your journal
  • Go into the Science course and take the quiz
  • Go into the forum and tell us what you are looking forward to doing on our environmental ed trip next week.
  • If you have time, go into the chat room and chat with your classmates
Here's what I learned...
  • You can moodle in Mac OS 8.x. However, the screens don't render correctly. This isn't insurmountable once you know where to look for things, but it is a bother. The biggest rendering problem we've encountered thus far is that in the journaling forum, the header above the topics is completely jumbled and covering the link to the topics themselves so you have to wave the mouse around until the cursor turns into a hand, otherwise you can't find the link.

  • In OS 8.1 the chat feature works. In OS 8.0, the browser keeps trying to take us to the plug in download page, but not finding what it wants. I suspect it needs Flash which isn't compatible with 8.0.

  • I didn't give clear enough directions regarding the journaling, so some students started new topics rather than replying to the message I had written to them.

  • In the quiz module, I watched some students take the quiz, but nothing was recorded for them in the grade book. Possibly they aren't submitting their answers.

  • In the forum, if they reply to someone else's response rather than hitting the reply link on the original topic, they are not given credit for responding in the grade book.

  • As the teacher, you can read ALL the comments made in the chat room, even after the event. Although I had laid down guidelines about the chatroom's use, a few students went over to the dark side. They will be surprised when they discover that even though I was busy helping students while they chatted, I still know what they said.

  • All of the students really seemed to enjoy the journaling. Most of them do not spend time online at home and don't have their own email, so this is a novel experience for them.

  • The students greatly enjoyed chatting. One of my struggling readers who rarely reads voluntarily, read the chat messages as they appeared for twenty minutes. He only managed a few comments; I suspect the chat was streaming by too quickly for him to keep up. However, anything that gets this child to want to read has great merit in my book.
My next goals are to get the rest of the students in the grade level into the Moodle and the correct courses. Then I can really put it to work. However, it's mid-terms time and then we are off to camp for a week, so my progress may be slow.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Moodling Around

My Moodle is finally ready to use. I decided to get my feet wet by having student journals in Moodle. In years gone by, one way I would get to know my students while also getting them to write was to journal with them. They each had a notebook and we'd write back and forth. It worked really well except that I had to lug around a class set of journals each night and then write in them by hand. Being able to type my responses motivated me enough to get going on this project.

I'd installed the Moodle software a few months ago on my web space. It had been quite easy since my web provider has Fantastico which did most of the work for me. After installing it, I'd gotten bogged down at the thought of creating an email account for each of my students. Our district does not provide them. I have the ability to create thousands of addresses as part of account with, but I REALLY didn't want to go through all that work since we weren't going to use the address-- the program just insisted that they have addresses.

Fortunately, I decided to see how smart the software was. I gave all the students my Gmail address and it worked. The program now realizes that more than one user has the same address and it has grumbled at bit about that, but the user accounts are working just fine.

To set up my journaling Moodle, I first needed to import my student data. I already have an Excel spreadsheet containing class data. I was able to duplicate and revise it to fit my needs. Once I saved it as a comma-separated text file with the extension .cvs it imported cleanly. The biggest problem I had with this step was that I couldn't figure out where I needed to be to import the data. I finally figured out that I needed to not be logged into any particular course. There is an administration link in the first window that allowed me to upload the data.

I wanted these journals to be private, meaning that no child can read any other child's journal. To set up that level of privacy, I gave each child a unique password and username, and then I made each child there own separate group. Then I created a forum and started creating one discussion per child. Luckily I decided to test if this was working correcting. It wasn't. The children could see and read all of the messages. After lots of muttering and referring to the manual, I tried forcing the groups which is a command in the settings pane. That did the trick. This is an extreme setting, since part of the power of Moodle is collaboration. However, I have plenty of plans for other courses that will have them collaborate.

One unknown at this point is browser and OS compatibility. In our old computer lab at school, some of the machines are still running Mac OS 8.0 which means they can't run Flash. No where on the Moodle web site could I find any minimum browser requirements, so here's hoping it works. There's a chance it won't even work in the newer lab which is running 9.2. We can't view the parent blog there because Blogger doesn't play well with Internet Explorer 5. It makes the words display as one letter per line -- that makes for a really long web page.