Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Importance of Communication in Blended/Online Learning

As educators, we know that communicating with our students (and for younger students, their parents) is essential to everyone's success.  Not only does this include meeting with parents during PTA Conferences, but educators have the responsibility to communicate with their students outside of the classroom on a regular basis concerning their academic and social development.  Establishing ongoing communication with students and their parents in an Online Learning classroom is even more important as there is no brick and mortar classroom.  As learning online is asynchronous, and therefore can be done during the students' own time, it is very easy for there to be a lack of communication between the online teacher and the students in the course.  It for this very reason that the online learning teacher puts in extra effort to ensure that the lines of communication are open and remain open throughout the duration of the course.  It is crucial that the students feel comfortable and confident in contacting their teacher when they have any questions or concerns about their learning.   If they do not, it will be more difficult for them to complete the course successfully.

In my current Blended/Online Learning course through YU School Partnership, we are using the Moodle Platform https://moodle.org/ as our LMS (Learning Management System).  As a course participant, I have the opportunity to play two roles during the ten month period of this course; 1) a student in an online learning course, and 2) a developer of an online course that I would teach to students.  Not only am I learning about the benefits of a Blended/Online Learning course and how it works, but I actually get to put what I have learned into practice.  By doing so, we are able to learn better as we teach and interact with our fellow participants online.

Between the way our Moodle course has been set up and various course readings, I have had many opportunities to learn about great ways to set up a ways to communicate within a Blended/Online Learning course.   One benefit of using Moodle as our LMS is that includes communication tools such as:  chats, discussion forums, email, and wikis.  This enables the students to communicate asynchronously.  As we all know that students learn differently,  the various communication tools which are often available in an online learning course afford the students the opportunities to communicate with their online course instructor through the avenue that meets their individual needs and at the time that they are available to do so.  Other communication tools that students can use in order to interact with fellow students and their course facilitator include tools such as Google+, Skype, and Google Hangouts.  Of course, these are to be used when both the course facilitator and students are available as they are synchronous tools.  

During the course of the next few months, I will be developing my online course.  I intend to enable various forms of communication in my LMS not only to enable my online students to reach out to me, but to encourage them to reach out to me when they have any questions or concerns.  It is up to us, the Online Course Facilitators, to establish the open lines of communication between us and our students in order to give them the best chance of success in their asynchronous learning environment.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Behind the Scenes of the iPad With Apple Configurator

As a classroom teacher, I was able to bring my iPad into my classroom and use with my entire class as a whole group or in small groups during center time.  I chose the apps that I wanted to use with my students, loaded them onto my iPad, and either instructed/reviewed content with my students using the app, or allowed them to use the device on their own while I facilitated.  Piece of cake.  This year I am working behind the scenes.  I was fortunate this year to assume the position as an Educational Technology Coach and Coordinator at an independent school in New York.  One of my many responsibilities in this position is deploying our iPads and Google Chromebooks.  Of course, it is all very exciting for the teachers, students, and everyone in our school.  In fact, one of the teachers informed the students that our iPads are replacing our textbooks!  Sorry, not so quick!  As Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker in Spiderman, "With great power comes great responsibility."  One of the most important tasks in preparing the iPads for deployment is to set up proper safety and security settings.   However, to do this on each individual iPad is virtually impossible - especially when it comes to creating a blacklist and whitelist for Internet websites.  Fortunately, my Twitter PLN member Margaret A Powers (https://twitter.com/mpowers3) introduced me to the Apple Configurator.   


If you have deployed iPads or will be soon deploying iPads in your school, the Apple Configurator is a must have app.  For some reason (and I do not know why), but there are many technology coordinators who have not heard of this app.  I was lucky to learn about it a couple of months ago and I therefore want to "share the wealth" by communicating to others about the benefits of using it.  

First of all, the Apple Configurator is not an iOS app, so you will not download it to your Apple mobile devices.  It is actually a free app that you can use on your Mac by downloading it from the Mac App Store.  If you don't own a Mac, I would highly recommend that your school purchases a Mac for you to use as well as a syncing/charging cart in order to configure, sync, and charge the iPads.  In short, you will connect the Mac to the cart via USB, and the iPads will be connected to the cart in slots via lightning cables.  

Apple Configurator makes it easy for anyone to mass configure and deploy iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch in a school, business, or institution.   Three simple workflows let you prepare new iOS devices for immediate distribution, supervise devices that need to maintain a standard configuration, and assign devices to users. Quickly update your devices simultaneously to the latest version of iOS, configure settings, and install apps and data for your students, employees, or patrons.

In the first phase of Apple Configurator, one prepares the devices.  Several events occur during this phase, such as: devices are configured simultaneously according to one's configuration settings and are updated to the latest version of iOS, apps are imported into Apple Configurator and are synced to new devices. Also during this phase, one has the option to enroll the devices in the institution's MDM (Mobile Device Management) system.  

During the second phase of Apple Configurator, one supervises the devices.  During this phase, one has the ability to do several things, including but not limited to: organize supervised devices into custom groups, automatically apply common configurations to supervised devices, and define and apply common or sequential names to all devices.  It is during this phase that one chooses the safety and security settings to be put onto the devices.  As during the prepare phase, one may continue to import apps into Apple Configurator and sync them to supervised devices.  

During the third and final phase of the Apple Configurator, one assigns the devices.  This includes but is not limited to the following activities: adding users and groups manually or autopopulating via Open Directory or Active Directory, checking out a device to a user and restoring the user’s settings and data on that device, and applying custom text, wallpaper, or the user’s picture to a device’s Lock screen.  


I have started using the Apple Configurator last week in order to properly set up iPads for my school.  I will be continuing to use it throughout this coming week during which I hope to complete the initial set up.  I will continue to use it every time I make changes to the iPads; whether it be modifying the security settings, or adding additional apps or features to the devices.  The Apple Configurator has been a huge help and I could not have done the job of iPad deployment without it.  As Apple updates this app, they continue to add additional features to it.  That being said, Apple has been very helpful as well as I have spent hours with them on the phone during the past couple of weeks.  I am very excited to prepare the devices for deployment and cannot wait to learn how they will positively impact our students' learning in their classrooms.

Edmodo - A Great Way to Connect and Communicate With My Students

The past few months have been very exciting for me. Soon after assuming the position of Educational Technology Coach and Coordinator at my school, I deployed Google Apps for Education. The next step was bringing Blended Learning into our school. Our choice of devices was easy; we will soon have both iPad and Google Chromebook carts in the hallways of the school. Next we needed, to choose an online content provider, which was going to be more difficult as there are so many available options.

We had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Lois Sharzer of Curriculum Associates about her Blended Learning program entitled i-Ready. Although our students are currently using a computer based program to supplement their instruction in reading and math, there was no comparison between the two. Our teachers were highly impressed. i-Ready includes many benefits; it provides rigorous instruction and practice on specific Common Core State Standards, automated differentiated online instruction and ongoing progress monitoring, detailed teacher and parent reports, data driven differentiated instruction pinpointing needs down to the sub-skill level. Several teachers will be piloting the program with their classes for the duration of the school year.

Although i-Ready is a great program, I realized we already had access to something else which is already in our own backyard, and even better, it’s free. This Web 2.0 tool which is great for communicating and connecting with one’s students, is none other than Edmodo. (www.edmodo.com). Edmodo is a Learning Management System (LMS) and offers so many of the features that an Online/Blended Learning Program should have. II started using Edmodo as a tool to communicate and connect with my students, which is so crucial to success. I am currently teaching grades three through five, but soon I will be teaching through the eighth grade. I created a group entitled “Technology Skills,” and then created smaller groups for each class that I teach within the large group. Initially, I was going to dictate each and every website that would be representing a skill that we would be learning. I had no idea how I was going to do that; and even more so, the students have enough difficulty navigating the Internet using the web browser; I had no idea how they would manage.

I therefore set up folders for each strand that I would teach. Inside the folders are links to websites that we will be using, videos, and other files I plan to share with my students. In addition, I am able to post assignments, alerts, quizzes, and polls for my students to complete. At this point in time, we are not using the platform for asynchronous learning, but I really would like to start using it in that fashion at some point in the future. Since my students are able to access it at home on their own time, they are able to practice (or pre-learn) the skills that I have included on my page. I will admit that I could not believe how quickly my students - even the third graders - discovered how to post messages on the site to me.

So all of the sudden, I had a bunch of students posting “love notes” to me through Edmodo. Now I know that this is not the purpose of Edmodo, but since my students are new to this concept (and hopefully are not using Facebook or other social media at their young age), I was letting them have fun. Unfortunately, it got a bit out of hand and some disciplinary action was necessary. A student who unfortunately has social issues, decided to post some inappropriate content directed towards me. I was very lucky that when I read these messages, I turned off the projector immediately so the other students could not see it. Instead of dealing with him directly, I printed out the messages and turned it over to the school administration. The student later apologized that evening using Edmodo as the tool to communicate with me.

As I reflect, I realize that I should have given them guidelines as to how they should properly post messages. Since we just concluded our first strand which focused on Digital Citizenship, I would hope that they would know how to post messages online - unfortunately, some messages and lessons that we teach just don’t seem to sink into our students’ heads. I am going to need to reiterate each and every session what the posting guidelines will be. I want this to be a productive experience for my students as they are very dependent on technology in order to communicate with others.

My students are sending me many notes often complimenting me about my class, which I truly appreciate. It’s great to receive feedback - especially when it’s positive. I really try to respond to each and every message they send me - usually within a few hours. When I do respond, I try to turn it into a conversation, or I might given them something to think about. Through this I am connecting with my students. My intent is that in time, they will be posting notes that are connected to what we are learning in class. I hope to teach them how to embed or link Edmodo to projects that they create using various tools that we are learning in class. The groups will then be able to comment on other members’ projects within their own group. Again, we will apply the lessons that we have learned about Digital Citizenship and posting messages in an appropriate manner.

I honestly did not even consider using Edmodo with third graders as I thought they were too young. However, I must say they did pretty well. Of course, nothing is perfect, and I have monitor them at the same time. I hope that as the year progresses, my students’ will gain a better sense and understanding about how valuable this tool can be in order to communicate and connect with others.

This blog post was originally written on November 21, 2013 and has been cross-posted from http://www.opendayschool.org/community/blog/entry/edmodo-a-great-way-to-connect-and-communicate-with-my-students.

Blended Learning - Can All Students Benefit?

This week in my certificate course in online/blended learning from the YU School Partnership, I read many articles and watched many videos about the various types of students who enroll in Blended Learning courses. Until I took this course, I did not know nearly as much about Blended Learning as I do now. I was aware that so many schools were implementing Blended Learning programs in their schools as a fad or the "new thing" to do. Schools have been pouring thousands of dollars into purchasing new hardware and software in order to implement Blended Learning Programs into their classrooms. One thing I wonder is whether they are using it because it is as a fad or whether they believe their students will actually benefit from it.

With regards to students who could benefit from Blended Learning, I must admit that I was very enlightened. Prior to this week, I was under the impression that it was something that all students could benefit from, which is actually the case. However, there is much more to this. The students who have special needs, social issues, those with learning disabilites or even need enrichment would most definitely benefit from a Blended Learning course. The benefit to taking this type of course it is that it offers personalized learning according to each child's needs as well as the ability to learn asynchronously at his or her own pace.

When pondering about students who are academically weaker having the ability to learn at their own pace, I cannot help but wonder the following. Some students learn at a faster pace, while others learn at a slower pace as they need the material to be repeated several times until they finally grasp it. The question I have is how do the students who learn at a slower pace eventually catch up to those who are learning at or above grade level?

Although I cannot answer that question right now, I do hope to be able to answer that question in the future. The videos I have watched show the research that was done by the teachers in the schools. Those students make an unbelievable amount of progress. In addition, I also intend to visit various Jewish day schools using Blended Learning. I hope to observe classrooms using Blended Learning as well as meet with the teachers and administrations of schools as well.

In general integrating technology in education requires time, preparation, and of course, money. Proper teacher training is critical to success. Secondly as Blended Learning has not been around that many years, continuous research has to be done. We all need to remember that Blended Learning is about our students being able to succeed in their learning; it's not about the technology tools. I know that if put into place properly, all students will be successful in the long run.

This post was originally written on October 13, 2013 and has been cross-posted from http://www.opendayschool.org/community/blog/entry/blended-learning-can-all-students-benefit.