Sunday, January 27, 2008

Need Suggestions on Best Way to Let Homebound Participate

We have an amazing student who is finally home after months in the hospital. On Friday, her class visited her. She has a long ways to go before she can return to school. In the meantime, we'd like to have her take part in one class per day. I'd appreciate suggestions on how best to do this.

On her end, she has a computer with a web cam and a tech savvy father. On our end, we will get whatever we need to make this work.

Some factors to consider:
  • We want the student to have as rich an experience as possible.
  • She will be able to see and hear and speak, but she is not able to type or use the mouse on her own.
  • She is an elementary students and her class is a mostly self-contained so we only need to set up one classroom with AV equipment.
  • The classroom has a data projector and the teacher's computer has a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard. The computer's sound can be broadcast through wall speakers. The classroom also has a PA system with an amplifier and a wireless mic.
  • We are installing Skype, and hopefully I will soon have a Yugma account. We have web cams and video cameras.
  • There is an aide in the classroom who can run the camera. She can switch the focus from the teacher to the whiteboard to the students as needed.
Concerns I have:
  • I don't know if our web cam (or any web cam) has enough focal depth to be able to see the whiteboard or to refocus on people at different distances.
  • A video camera would probably be a better choice in terms of focal length and picking up voices across the room. However, I don't know if our computers or their computers could handle the data stream.
  • The teacher would like her to be able to read the whiteboard at times when it is crucial to the lesson.
  • This needs to be stable. If it is bogging down or crashing, it will get in the way of instruction.
Our first thought is Skype. We are going to play with it with a web cam. Maybe it won't be too limiting. Another thought is Elluminate's vRoom. It allows for 3 participants, so the student, the teacher's computer and another student in the class could all be on. The teacher could use the whiteboard feature. She has a data projector and a wireless mouse and keyboard so she could use those from the front of the room. It will also handle the video. The teacher can make herself and the student both have the microphone so she can talk with the teacher and the class. The teacher could use this option for tutoring after school as well.

Will either of these work? Do you have a better solution to suggest? Any ideas on how to tweak either of these options for optimal performance? Please let me know. I dearly want to make this work and make it work soon.

A Trip to the Virtual Staffroom

Last Sunday I had the honor of chatting with Chris Betcher and Kim Cofino on Skype. Chris polished the discussion and posted it as a podcast on his Virtual Staffroom blog. Our topic of discussions was, appropriately enough, teaching tech.

This was my first time being part of any podcast and I want to thank Chris for making it all so easy. He is a talented interviewer and a gracious host so a good time was had by all.

If you have any interest in it, go check out the podcast. Or better yet, use iTunes to subscribe so you don't miss a single episode of his entertaining and informative podcast.

(And three cheers for my old iBook G4 which delights in bonking during Skye calls but was kind enough to work without flaw for the entire session. Maybe it knows how much I'd like a Macbook Air...)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Solve the Tech Teacher Substitute Dilemma?

I think that most classroom teachers would agree that preparing a for a substitute teacher is often more work than it is worth. As a technology integrationalist for part of the day, my sub plans can either be incredibly easy (e.g. keyboarding for first 20 minutes, TimezAttach or for rest of class) or incredibly challenging, especially if I don't know who my substitute will be, or if I know the person is not comfortable with technology, doesn't know their way around our computers.

Since we have returned to work this January, I have missed all or a portion of 7 days for training. It has been great to be a student, but more challenging that usual to prepare for the substitute.

With some units, I teach the skills and then the classroom teacher finishes up on their own time. For example, last week a teacher asked me to show the students how to create a timeline in Excel. They had never used the program before and so I got them started. She had prepped them before hand by having them decide which of their own life milestones were going to be on the timeline, so I spent ten minutes teaching them the tech side and then they were ready to roll. She scheduled lab time during the week to finish the project. Easy.

Unfortunately, I only see my students once per week for 45 minutes and I'm trying to finish my web design unit. If I were using Contribute with my students, then I could reasonably ask my teachers to finish up the pages with their classes since they use that to maintain their class pages. However, I've been teaching the students to actually write the HTML tags, writing their pages by hand. I cannot ask a teacher to do that.

I was gone three days of the first week back to work after the Christmas holiday. That meant the kids had forgotten a lot. Not wanting to have so much time lost, I tried to leave a lesson plan that let the students keep working. It sounds like it met with limited success. My students remembered too little and she couldn't support. It was a setup for all of them and I realized that I should have left a one off lesson instead.

Then today I read Sylvia Martinez's post entitled Students as Substitutes. That wouldn't be a good choice for unplanned absences, but for a time like this, where I knew weeks in advance that I was going to be absent, this could have been a great solution. I especially like this idea for my fourth and fifth grade classes; my lessons for third graders are usually easy enough for any sub to teach, especially since my assistant (who is NOT a teaching assistant) is very willing to drop by before school to help the substitute get up to speed.

Part of my recent spate of training was 3 days spent with the amazing Jenny Black at Tanglin Trust School to work on my Promethean ActivStudio Curriculum Developer certification. I am now more eager than ever to get my students creating flipcharts instead of just using them. I would so love to see the end of Powerpoint instruction and see its use diminish, since it is such a challenge to helps students create truly engaging presentations with it.

Picture instead that with a substitute on hand, they were taking turns using their self-prepared flipcharts to teach their classmates a new skill. Even if they run into troubles with the IWB, since all of the students would have been creating flipcharts, then they should all be able to help; the software is not rock science. However, unlike Powerpoint, I think the Activstudio software could encourage students to develop more interactive features in their presentations. Just as they love the animations and sounds in Powerpoint, I think they would love the actions, sounds, containers and ability to embed things in flip charts. I rarely see a good Powerpoint inspire other students to do better work, but just like good student-made web pages challenge many other students to improve their own pages, I think a clever student-made flipchart would spur on other students to meet the challenge.

Next steps for me include getting more copies of the ActivStudio software. 6 copies come with each board. Right now I have 8 boards and 8 copies of the software installed, plus one lab installed. I either need to move those lab installs to my lab, or get more copies. Also need to re-explore the student use of the Activstudio software. Last fall Kent had discovered that at the Promethean Planet website there was a page where students could download the software. I can't remember if it was the full version, but it was not just a player; students could use it to create flipcharts at home!!

So, what about you? Have you ever had students teach when you were absent? If not, could you? Would you? Why or why not?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Learning from My Online Project Mistakes

As usual, Graham Wegner is making me think. He posted a great parable about online collaborative projects and it's forcing me to rethink an experience I had last year that I never paused to reflect upon because it felt like a failure.

Graham's parable shows some of the challenges of coordinating an online collaborative project. I've been on both sides of this parable. Mostly I'm on the tech coach side, but after my experience last year of taking part and then disappearing from a good online collaboration, I've learned that even with all my tech experience, I can make a mess of it.

Differing schedules, teacher's declining, no class of my own all contributed to my failure. I had joined the project was to force myself to do more with wikis, more with Flickr, but the project itself kept getting more complex, having more requirements and steps to follow until, for me, it collapsed under its own weight.

Now that Graham has brought this experience back into my focus, I'm realizing I can take quite a bit of learning away from the experience...

  • Start really simple. If the students can't do most of it themselves, then chances are, I'll learn far more than they do. Nothing wrong with me learning a lot, but teaching time is too short for me to do things that don't greatly benefit the students.

  • Similarly, start small. Online projects often require a huge amount of communication and ongoing planning by the teachers. The more teachers, the more people who must be consulted at each step. The more people involved, the more formal a process may be needed to manage it all. Sometimes, just having two teachers, two classes will be the most effective, despite all that could be gained from having more kids in more places involved. Likewise, start with a shorter termed project. If it rocks your socks you can extend it.

  • Be very clear what you want the students to get out of it. Use backward design to fit the project to the learning and not the other way around, as is so tempting with new tech tools.

  • Check, check and recheck access before committing. My account at work has more privileges than student and teacher accounts. Didn't think to check access when logged in as one of them, until we were into the project. They couldn't add comments to the wiki. They couldn't upload to it either. And the wiki only allowed so many comments per hour from the same person, so I couldn't log them all in as me.

  • Upfront, try to make a realistic prediction of the time commitment and the the skills needed. Make those estimates based on the time it will take a new user, not you who have been experimenting with the tools for months. Based on the little I have done with online projects, I'd say double the time you think it will take, both in class and outside of class.

  • Consider all the schools' vacation schedules when creating the project calendar. Also note end of term, standardized exams, etc.

  • Keep communicating even when the ship is going down. I expressed my frustrations minimally and then bailed. I wish I'd had the guts to stay in longer or at least take my leave more gracefully. I really enjoyed the people in it, but after three months, it felt like it was pulling me under. I was so much happier when that weight was gone. I don't think relief is what we should feel at the end of collaborations.
Next time I feel tempted to dive into a project, I'll reread Kim Cofino's wise words about planning and implementing social networking projects. She has been involved in many successful projects. Her post comes from a place of wisdom and experience.

In the mean time, what tips can you add to my list? What else should we keep in mind as we embark on collaborative projects?