02 February 2019

An Undistinguished Educator: Why I'm not an ADE

Why after over twenty years working to integrate digital technology in classroom K-12, I'm still not an Apple Distinguished Educator, or a Google Certified Educator. I'm happy to remain an undistinguished educator. 

Even the titles make me want to retch—having an Apple logo appended to my signature makes me 'distinguished'? Passing a facile multiple choice test means Google will 'certify' my teaching efficacy? 

These trumped up ‘certifications’ have more to do with huge corporations influencing educators into a form of brand loyalty and in turn using those educators as 'influencers' than it does about genuine continuing professional development.

Now it could be said that it’s okay for me to take this position as I am fortunate to be working in an amazing school, if I was seeking employment I might have to swallow my pride and get me 'some o dat certification', just to satisfy the naive expectations of administrators and schools who should know better. And that may be true, however I’d also have to seriously question whether that the kind of school that values that kind of certification is the kind of environment I would like to work in.

Many moons ago, at the beginning of this branding exercise, I kept an open mind and attended sessions at tech conferences dedicated to both of these qualifications and was absolutely appalled at the focus they outlined; clearly designed by both parties to foster an exclusive focus on their tools to the exclusion of any others, no matter what they might say. Because creating a video and writing a letter is the gold standard in determining educator efficacy?

That sounds like the kind of process that would be dreamt up by a corporate marketing team than anyone serious about improving education to me.  

When I attended the Google certified educator session it was even worse, the admission criteria included taking and passing a multiple-choice test, one where the questions didn’t even match the current iteration of the Google Apps suite that was being used!  So candidates were informed that they would need to answer the multiple choice questions (yet another ludicrous way to determine teaching talent) in a way that aligned with the way the tools used to work... even then what precedent does this set? Based on sample questions we were shown, the sign of a skilled educator is that they have memorised the locations of commands in the menus of the tools they use? That’s not how I operate, if you were to ask me where to find a certain command in Google docs I couldn’t tell you from memory, I haven’t memorised them,  but I know where to look for them when I need them. The criteria for appraising the efficacy of educators in Google is fundamentally flawed, not built on skilful pedagogy but on a naive surface level assumption that memorising the location of functions in software is of paramount importance?

I can tell you that when the institution where I work seeks to recruit coaches/teachers, whether or not they have one of these superficial qualifications is not a consideration.  I’ve encountered many educators who are clearly very poorly skilled and have a very dubious understanding about how tech can be integrated effectively (nouns over verbs, tech viewed more like toys than tools), and their naive display of their certification just served to further undermine their credibility.

The aspect I find most difficult to accept is the way these titles facilitate an immature kind of exclusivity or 'club', how do people expect to effectively engage in effective professional development if their first criteria is exclusion? Even more ridiculous, you could, like me, be a teacher who has many many years of experience working with tech integration, or/and have a Masters degree in this area, but that will still not permit inclusion to this inner sanctum. When a community values a superficial label over a rigorous professional qualification that takes years to acquire you know there must be something wrong.

So, if you were considering pursuing this certification, my advice is to forget it. Use the time to focus on designing better lessons for your students, and if you’re seeking a qualification, pursue something like a degree, or masters degree instead.

14 October 2018

Digital Literacy & Vitamin D

Vitamin D (VITAD)

Five Essential Domains: VITAD: video, image, text, audio, data - 'Vitamin D' 

Just like all subject domains, tech has its own overarching domains or strands that are an efficient way to organise the essential skill sets needed for true digital literacy.  We should not neglect opportunities to read and write, for example, realistic fiction, or physics or shape and space in Mathematics, I believe the same applies to what could be called the 'digital domains' or modes of digital technologies: text, image, video, audio, and data handling.

Digital Illiteracy... 

An easy easy way to recall these essential areas is with the acronym 'VITAD', 'vitamin digital', now when you're considering whether not you can consider yourself, your students or any 21st century citizen to be truly digitally literate, how do they measure up to VITAD?
  1. Can they view, edit, create, compose with video?
  2. Can they organise, edit, resize, manipulate, incorporate image?
  3. Can they browse/read/search text? Are they proficient at word processing, commenting, curating  texts?
  4. Can the manage audio files, organise, edit, create, compose audio using multiple audio tracks/sound effects?
  5. Do they know their way around a spreadsheet? Can they organise data efficiently, perform basic calculations, use functions and formulae, analyse, synthesise, and model data? Can they think computationally? 
When, and only when you can confidently answer a confident yes to all the above, then, and only then can you call yourself digitally literate!

To put it another way - we're talking about students becoming holistically literate, that literacy has to incorporate 'multiliteracies' including language, scientific/methodological ways of thinking, mathematical literacy and of course digital literacy. ALL of these can be defined as 'subjects', all of these could also be (and arguably should/could be) taught in an integrated way. Just because we've chosen to integrate a subject, does not mean it should be treated less rigorously - integration should not mean invisibility - at least not for teachers. (I'd argue invisibility would be great from a student's perspective, but so would it be for maths and science et al - they don't see it as a 'subject' it's just another natural (for them) way of thinking and working)

WWPP,  a pragmatic compromise: WP, WWW, PPT & PDFs


However... if there is one thing I've learned in my now 8 years as a DLC, and from now over 20 years working with 'edtech' or the integration of digital technologies in the classroom from K-12, it's that there is a fundamental shift, in terms of how these domains are experienced as students move though the school lives. A shift from VITAD to WWPP, what is WWPP? stakes examinations. 

  • Word Processing
  • Websites/Web Search
  • PowerPoint Slideshows (or similar)
  • PDFs & Posters 

WWPP describes the fundamental domains that are the norm for most teachers, and represent the actual reality in most secondary school classrooms, especially those that are organised around the premise of preparing students for high stakes examinations. The fact is that, like it or not, what studies repeatedly show as 'effective' use, is use that can be translated into evidence that is represented by a standardised test score, and if that is the only metric we are prepared (or able) to consider, then WWPP is the model that works, for more on the practical ramifications of this in high school classrooms, read my post: PDFs, Pragmatism & WWPP.

05 May 2018

PDFs, Pragmatism & WWPP

WWPP,  a pragmatic compromise: WP, WWW, PPT & PDFs

If there is one thing I've learned in my now almost a decade as a digital literacy coach (DLC), and from now over 20 years working with 'edtech' or the technology enhanced learning (TEL) in the classroom from K-12, it's that there is a fundamental shift, in terms of how opportunities to learn and to create with digital tools are experienced as students move though their school lives. There is a gradual progression. During their primary/elementary years, students at UWCSEA regularly (ie, at least once a year) work across all five of the domains that span what I what I would describe as true digital literacy, or perhaps a better word is competency; video, image, text, audio, data—or VITAD. Then as they progress through middle and then high school, there is a narrowing of focus as students become more specialised in their learning, and their range of learning experiences narrows, from VITAD, to something I call WWPP:

  • Word Processing
  • Websites & Web Search
  • PowerPoint Slideshows (or similar)
  • Printing, PDFs, Posters (yes I realise that's more than one P)

WWPP describes the fundamental domains that are the norm for most teachers in most subjects in terms of the tools they rely on to do their own work, and so, not surprisingly, represent the kinds of digital technology they are comfortable using with their students, and in (hopefully, but not necessarily) expecting their students to use. This means, whether you like it or not, this represents the actual reality in most secondary school classrooms, especially those that are organised around the premise of preparing students for high stakes examinations.

This doesn't mean that VITAD is non existent in secondary schools, it just means that it will be more isolated and consigned to certain subject areas, eg data handling in the Sciences, image in the Arts, audio in Music, video in Film et cetera. This doesn't mean these experiences aren't beneficial in other subject areas, the work they do in primary school clearly demonstrates that it is, it's just that, having worked on trying to facilitate this, I've had to concede that it just doesn't happen much, if at all, once students are taught by subject specialists. This observation is one I have observed both as a teacher and a parent for many years, and it is one that is borne out by the literature. I've already written a post about this phenomenon, that can be summed up by these quotes from two recent studies into the dominant use of digital technologies in secondary schools is in terms of their assumed and actual use: 

Laptops are typically purchased by schools and sometimes by parents, and they are largely used to write and revise papers, conduct Internet searches, and engage in personalized instruction and assessment using educational software or online tools. (Zheng et al, 2016, p2)

... schools revealed moderate use of many well-established digital technologies, such as word processing, presentation software, and quiz games. (Hughes et al, 2018, p1)

... students reported using word processing, spreadsheets, presentation tools, and web searches most frequently in class. (ibid, p2)

So the fact is that, like it or not, what studies repeatedly show as 'effective' use, is use that can be translated into evidence that is measured using a standardised test score. And if that is the only metric we are prepared (or able) to consider, then WWPP is the model that works, and WWPP is a model that works for preparing students for high stakes examinations; until those examinations change in terms of their expectations, then WWPP is here to stay. 

Now I'm not ecstatic about this, but I am pragmatic; by this I mean if we're going to accept that this narrowing of expectation exists, that the least we can do is teach these skills properly. The danger at the moment, is that in the same way that these skills reflect their teachers ICT skills, they also reflect their teachers competency, or as is more often the case in my experience, their teachers' gradually increasing competency. Now—don't get me wrong—I don't blame teachers for this, it's very powerful when a teacher can model for their students that they are also 'lifelong learners' and anyway, if they are anywhere near my age, they didn't actually own a computer until they were in their 20s, and even then they were never taught how to use them, they were just expected to figure it out themselves by trial and tribulation. I've written more on this skills issue in another post, but suffice it to say here, that at the very least, if we're going to narrow our focus, can we at least expect these skills to be taught properly? To be used in a skilful, or especially at high school level, a competent way? I think we can, and I think we should. The benefits to both teachers in terms of their ability to do their jobs more effectively, and to their students are clear. 

What does skilled WWPP look like?

It looks like the expectations for any adult who would be deemed to be digitally literate, and adult who wants, no, needs to function effectively in their work place. Some suggestions below:  

Skilful Word Processing 

  • Use and format tables: insert & delete rows, columns, & merge cells
  • Use the tab key (also add new row to a table/indented bullets)
  • Use commenting tools to give, receive & respond to feedback
  • Paste text without formatting, or to match destination formatting
  • Insert/format/manage page numbers
  • Add/use headers/footers 
  • Use, modify, and create templates
  • Use document page breaks, section breaks & styles
  • Use automatic features like table of contents (TOC), references, citations
  • Reference source materials, ie MLA, APA et cetera
  • Extend these same skills to the building of web resources/sites

Skilful Web Browsing/Searching

  • Use History and bookmarks effectively instead of relying on excessive tabs
  • Use multiple accounts with web browsers to manage private/professional practice
  • Access and find information in an online database not just Google/Bing et al.
  • Identify key words, names, & phrases for a search
  • Appreciate the advantages & disadvantages of a variety of sources
  • Use the find command to locate specific words on a page
  • Upload & download files as appropriate, understand the associated file sizes. 
  • Understand & carry out an (advanced) multiple field search
  • Search using Boolean terms (site:, intitle:, —)

Skilful PowerPoints/Slide Shows

  • Create well designed slideshows that rely on image, not text  
  • Format & customise well designed themes 
  • Create presentations that use multimedia effectively, eg video, sound &/or animation
  • Format & edit master slides to manage the formatting of a presentation
  • Use appropriate images, eg pixel width, proportion, illustration not just decoration
  • Crop & enhance images to complement your slides 
  • Select, trim and incorporate video clips/animations
  • Visualise data effectively using charts and graphs 
  • Understand the affordances of different tools, eg PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides... 
  • Use slide aspect ratio intentionally (wide screen v 4:3)
  • Use the slide sorter view to manage/organise your presentation 

Skilful use of PDFs & Posters

  • Organised and synchronised online for ease of access/sharing
  • Edit to isolate certain pages, extract specific content, reorder content
  • Annotate, comment, and highlight 
  • Convert (hard or soft) documents to/from PDF 


I've been hesitant to concede this facts, but I console myself with the knowledge that if the students have been given the appropriate foundations and experiences what span VITAD in primary and some extent, middle school, their ongoing development in terms of digital literacy is now something they should be able to pursue independently throughout high school, and for the rest of their lives. This means that high school teachers have one focus and one focus only and that is to enable their students to succeed in their examinations in the same way they have for the past 50 years. Until the examinations change, there little point expecting teachers to change, Especially as the efficacy of their teaching practice is often based, either explicitly or implicitly, on their students’ grades. 

It’s obvious internationally that many if not most schools don’t understand this, or don’t care.  This is why Google Chromebooks and similar budget computers are thriving in comparison with iPads and MacBooks in schools. The former is fine all you want students to experience is WWPP, but if you want them to demonstrate true digital literacy with VITAD and all of the wonderful combinations and permutations between those domains, budget computers can’t and don’t deliver this. 


Hughes, Joan E. and Read, Michelle F. (2018) "Student experiences of technology integration in school subjects: A comparison across four middle schools," Middle Grades Review: Vol. 4 : Iss. 1 , Article 6.
Available at: https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/mgreview/vol4/iss1/6

Zheng, B., Warschauer, M., Lin, C. H., & Chang, C. (2016). Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 0034654316628645.

26 October 2017

Video Games & Playgrounds

One of the most profound shifts in terms of childhood in a digital age, is the rise of online gaming. Once the preserve of teenage and tween geeks and nerds in darkened LAN rooms, now it is a common pastime for younger children, certainly many of our Junior School children regularly engage in these pursuits as a regular pastime. This is not a post about whether or not this kind of activity is one we should encourage, (I think we should) that is a subject I have written about elsewhere, and present a parent workshop about gaming every year. No, this is about providing some advice for the many parents who, for whatever reason, have kids who like to play online.

There is a growing collection of video games that fall into the category of multiplayer online game, from Clash of Clans to Club Penguin, to Minecraft, Roblox and Overwatch, and many more.

21st Century Playgrounds

As is often the case these days/this century, parents and teachers often find themselves faced with trying to relate to a child, whose normative childhood experience bears little resemblance to their own, but let me reassure you—while the medium has changed—the message and the meaning, and the opportunities and obstacles that surround group play have not.

The main place and space you are likely to encounter this is at home, as playing video games in class is generally not something kids will have time to do. There may be exceptions, eg possibly as a one off iTime project, but even then, the objective of creating something that they are accountable for in terms of achievement would need to be paramount. This is the stance we take with these kinds of gaming experiences, like Minecraft and Roblox. That said of course, there may be teachers who find this to be a useful strategy as a reward for hard work for example. If so they will take the necessary precautions, just as they would if sending kids to play on the playground.

Safe Play

When it comes to games for kids, Roblox is a great game, just like its progenitor Minecraft, however—as with all making, creating, playing, social experiences there is always the potential for inappropriate use, and experiences, whether the playground is virtual or actual. The solution, much as we would advocate for any 'multi-player' 'off screen' play—from playing tag or handball, to playing football, to swimming or having a sleepover, is to make sure there a​re​ clear parameters, and appropriate supervision, to ensure that we are minimising the likelihood of potentially harmful or unpleasant encounters.

Online maker spaces like Roblox and Minecraft are unique in terms of the sheer potential they offer in terms of unbridled creativity, and are also very familiar in terms of their potentials and pitfalls.

With all of these kinds of games the same safeguards we would have applied to playgrounds as children apply, ie be aware of the other people who are playing in this online arena or space, and the extent to which this space is effectively supervised, or moderated. If, as kids, we had been permitted to play unsupervised at nearby playground (I was, in London in the 70s, that seemed to be quite normal). We would have taken appropriate action if, for example, there were bullies in the playground, making life miserable for everyone. The same is true of these online spaces, which are very much similar to playgrounds, only on a screen, instead of in a park.


The developers behind games like Roblox and Minecraft are very aware of this, and design in safeguards for children, but this only works if the child has been honest about their age when creating the account, whether it's a Roblox account, or an Instagram account. Whenever a child creates an online account, like any other internet account, it's important that they set these up with the parent, or with the parents permission, otherwise they can 'accidentally' end up effectively creating an account for adults which could result in their being exposed to content that is inappropriate. Ideally a teacher or parent should be involved in the account setup and in ensuring that the child plays/uses the account responsibly—this is a skill that will serve them w​e​ll for the rest of their lives, in all sorts of online environments.

Roblox, for example, have a very clear commitment to safeguarding children; but it can be all too easy for children to create adult accounts, thereby effectively bypass any and all safeguards that would automatically be applied in the case of younger children. This usually happens if a child 'accidentally' enters the 'wrong' year of birth when registering their account, then the system assumes that are older than 13. In the event that this happens, my advice is for the parent to have a close look at the child's account settings, if Roblox or Minecraft knows that a user is under 13 there are a slew of safeguards that will be applied to the account to ensure the child's welfare, eg:

"For users age 12 and under, however, we take extra precaution to ensure their safety and privacy by automatically enforcing more restricted settings so they can only directly message other users that are accepted as friends on Roblox." 
"Players age 12 and younger have locked privacy settings to prevent contact from people they don't know. These players must first become friends with another user before certain activities are allowed, such as messaging, following into game, and playing in private servers."

Have Fun!

There are advocates in some quarters who encourage parents to join their child and play with them, to be honest, I think you'll find that most kids are less than enthusiastic about this idea.... Would you play tag, or have a sleepover with your kids and their friends? Probably not, so why would online play be any different?

Last but not least, the best thing you can do as a parent is be consistent; online and offline play are rich experiences that are enjoyable and highly beneficial provided some basic precautions are followed; for more on the potential benefits of gaming, see the following on video games as 'sandboxes'.

Holidays, Screen Time & Parental Guilt

Screen time: Interacting? Consuming? Communicating? Creating? [www.heart.net]

Holidays are fabulous, and with them comes, especially for your children, time, in particular, more leisure time; and in a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” for many, while we anticipate some great memories and experiences, with the typical 21st-century family it doesn't take long before the inevitable tensions caused by the multiplicity of screens in the home can start to cause problems. The fact is that a vacation inevitably means more time spent with screens, for the whole family, not just the kids. Yes, you know it's true.

Cue the inevitable pangs of parental guilt, brilliantly summed up in an article from The Atlantic:

"Tune into the conversation about kids and screen time, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that before the invention of the iPhone, parents spent every waking moment engaging their kids in deep conversation, undertaking creatively expressive arts-and-crafts projects, or growing their own vegetables in the backyard garden. There’s a tendency to portray time spent away from screens as idyllic, and time spent in front of them as something to panic about. 
But research shows that vilifying the devices’ place in family life may be misguided."

Depending on where you will be spending your vacation, you may well find yourself in a situation where your children are stuck indoors for many hours. Obviously a long haul flight means that kind of scenario and most families are prepared to tolerate a lot more screen time in that situation for the sake of maintaining sanity. But what happens when, at your destination, you are faced with, for example, inclement weather (yes Ireland, I'm looking at you). This means that potentially your children are stuck inside for days on end, and there's only so many hours you can spend persuading them to play board games and read books before screens and their many distractions become a temptation... Then when (not if) parents inevitably concede, it causes a great deal of guilt, not to mention potential condemnation from in-laws?

Screen Time - Not just a kid thing [Credit Paul Rogers]

How much is too much?

Common sense media have recently released the results of a huge census that they have taken, 'Media use by Tweens and Teens', researching typical uses of screen time. I've written about the issue of screen time before in the context of early childhood. But what make this census of particular interest is that it's focused on the screen time of older children. The findings are certainly worth reading, and for the most part they handle the issues it represents well, other than their tendency to grandstand with their "9 HOURS OF MEDIA DAILY" (which includes listening to music, something you could be doing while spending a week hiking in the mountains...) But my main gripe is their strange choice to exclude adults from the census—it's my contention (recently confirmed by another media census focusing on parents) that many if not most adults would rack up just as many hours as our children, if not more (especially if they're working on screens during the vacation, which many do). Given a comparison like that, it would put this kind of alarmist rhetoric into a much more reasonable perspective. For example, at least two recent studies show that the typical adult spends between eight and eleven hours on screens, although "to be fair, much of that probably happens while doing other things at the same time." (Statista)

"On any given day, parents of American tweens and teens average more than nine hours with screen media each day. Eighty-two percent of that time (almost eight hours) is devoted to personal screen media activities such as watching TV, social networking, and video gaming, with the rest used for work."  
The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens

As mentioned, the amount of "free time" available to everyone in the family during vacations increases, but you can be sure that especially for your children, with this significant increase, the likelihood is that your children will want to occupy most, if not all of this free time with "entertainment media". This was the focus of the census, and included media like books, not just screens, but as you will not be surprised to learn, screens dominated. A lot.
"entertainment media” is a very broad category, including everything from music, TV shows and videos, books, and websites to computer, video, and mobile games. But the fact that tweens and teens in the U.S. are using an average of six to nine hours' worth of media a day is still astounding. As discussed elsewhere, this does not mean they are stopping all other activity and attending only to media during this time; but it is still a large amount of time spent absorbing a large amount of content.
on any given day fully one in five 8- to 12-year-olds in this country is using more than six hours of screen media, and nearly as many teens (18 percent) are using more than 10 hours of screen media." (The Common Sense Census, 2015, p 30)

The survey provides little of anything in terms of advice as to how to manage this, although one particular statistic really stood out to me, and it is at the heart of my advice to parents in dealing with this tricky issue.

Media Use by Tweens and Tweens Report - Page 22

"Only 3% of teens' and tweens' digital media time is spent on content creation" 

Almost every vacation I get bombarded with emails parents and teachers desperately requesting ideas for ways that they can use screen time more productively during their vacation, so here is my advice if you want to try and make screen time more productive in your family this holiday.

Get creative

The notion of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for, well, lots of purposes. Designating their use simply as "screen time" can miss some important variations. The Common Sense Census identifies four main categories of screen time.

  • Passive consumption: watching TV, reading, and listening to music 
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: using devices to make digital art or music

21st Century Family Screen Time [image credit: pc.advisor.co.uk]

If screen media use can mean writing a short story on a computer, video-chatting with relatives, watching videos, reading the news online, or playing games, what is the point of documenting the total amount of time teens spend using screens? Instead of auditing, let's focus more on balance, the paltry amount of time spent creating with screens could be nudged up extensively by replicating at home some of the ways we encourage our students to use screens in school, only this time giving your kids much greater freedom of choice in terms of the focus of their creative endeavours...

If your children are dual language learners (DLLs), this is an excellent way to encourage them to reinforce their language other than English, by replicating some of their school projects in their mother tongue.

A model I use for framing our use of screens at UWCSEA is something I sum up as 'vitamin digital' of 'VITAD'; five domains of tech use. Even better, as your kids have been working within many (if not all) of these domains, they will already have a good idea of the kinds of tools they need to use, without you needing to teach them! Each of these domains is powerful in its own right, but they really come into their own when you start exploring combinations of them...

VITAD - Video, Image, Text, Audio and Data Handling - Core Domains of Tech

Video editing:

Make music videos, animation, stop motion video, 'supercuts' from YouTube clips. Why not appoint your kids as family 'media journalists', why not give them the job of documenting the holiday? I'm sure they'll let you contribute some of your media to the project... 

Image creation:

Image montage/mash up, slideshow, add music to convert the slide show into a music video? Image editing, filters, layers, digital artwork... 


Make an ebook, presentation, blog, choose your own adventure (hyperlinked Google Slides), coding, website, browse (research holiday destination?) persuade, demonstrate...

Learn to touch-type, for more advice on this see my related post, but it's safe to say that if you/your child dedicated 15-30 minutes a day to this everyday throughout the holidays they could be proficient by the start of the new school term in August! 


Slideshow commentary, soundtrack, podcast/radio show, composition in GarageBand, or remix of favourite tracks? 

Data handling: 

Spreadsheets: pocket money, trip budget, holiday costing, problem solving, graphing stats (choose data and gather ie how many times does 'x' do 'y'???


Do not be mistaken, just because they are working with Maths activities on a screen, doesn't make the experience much more palatable for your kids. That said, there is no doubt that using screens to encourage greater numeracy is a no-brainer, these tools are brilliant at enabling practise, with immediate feedback, and developing 'automaticity'. Despite this, Maths practise will most likely need to be encouraged with tangible rewards for completion of certain achievements. I expect my kids to do a half an hour of Khan Academy before they do any other screen activity, half an hour a day during vacations is the goal. Maybe offer them rewards as they complete certain mile posts or missions? In order to keep vacation stress to a minimum, I find it a really good idea to ask them to go back and master grade missions that precede the grade they're in, as this is an effective form of revision/consolidation/practise, even if this means a Grade 5 student working on the Early Years mission to get started, if I did it, so can they! This way you're also less likely to be called on to help with problems that they can't solve independently, and they are more likely to enjoy the sense of fluency and confidence that comes with working speedily through concepts that they have practised in previous years, not to mention the reward of mastering a grade level. That said, both you and they might be surprised at how many foundational skills they are less confident in than they thought, just as well you did this then, isn't it?

... Better still, why not join them in a little Maths revision yourself? The Khan Academy App on the iPad is particularly good for this.

There are plenty of other options besides Khan Academy, especially if you don't have a reliable WiFi connection, these can be really useful. One of my favourites is the Ken Ken App, like Sodoku, but with basic operations thrown in. Also, pretty much anything from the developers behind Squeebles is a safe bet—there are many tried and tested Maths Apps, such as these, and these, that you can install on an iOS device near you, I'm sure many if not most of these are also available on Android.


Check out my coding posts on this blog and you'll see a complete guide of many kinds of apps and sites to fill any vacation... :)

Focus on the Meaning not the Medium

Now I'm not going to pretend that all these ways to use screens to create are going to trump the use of screens to consume, interact and communicate, any more than you have any intention of only using screens in your life for creating. For this reason you may need some incentives are going to have to be in the form of some essential agreements; with a bit of careful negotiation I'm sure you can work out some sort of compromise...

Finally, some wise words from the American Association of Pediatrics (updated October 2015):
"Media is just another environment. Children do the same things they have always done, only virtually. Like any environment, media can have positive and negative effects. 
Content matters. The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer."

Record & Flip - Blended Screencasts

Record & Flip

Record it, then flip it, simple!

Screen recording, or Screencasts are one of most most effective teaching tools in the arsenal of a teacher who is fortunate to be work in a 'technology enhanced learning environment' but, if the devices you have to hand are laptops, not tablets, than expecting your students to create a screencast can be more of a hassle than it's worth. 

That is unless you know how to record and flip. 

I've used demonstrated this technique before in a context of asking students to model a skill with apparatus, such as how they can measure an angle with a protractor, but with a little imagination it's not difficult to see how this could be used in other ways:
  • Mapping skills in Humanities
  • Rationale for a design proposal in Design & Technology
  • Description of the significance of imagery in the Visual Arts
  • Mind Mapping relationships and connections
  • Reflection on ideas and opportunities for development in a flash draft in English
  • Reflection/critique of a passage/excerpt in a printed book/magazine
  • Annotation of musical notation to indicate understanding of the structure
  • Annotation of diagrams, graphs, and charts
  • Explaining a strategy or process in solving a Mathematics problem
  • and many more...
All the students need is a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, and to position it as shown above. They can tap the spacebar to start and stop the recording. 

Once the recording is finished the student can flip the video horizontally and vertically, then review and trim* the video is necessary before sharing it with the teacher. 

An Example from Mathematics

Here's one I did earlier...**

*If the student has done a great deal of  'umming and ahhing' they can delete the segments of the video that are unimportant, but most of the time this is probably unnecessary as you're not looking for a highly polished artefact here, and hesitation (when and why) may well be useful information in and of itself.

Student Example

** Disclaimer, the hesitation you see in this video was intentional in order to create a sense of authenticity, honest, it's true! 

20 October 2017

Classrooms as Social Networks

Interthinking by Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer

Interthinking, Interaction & the Internet

Possibly one of the most exciting applications of digital technology in education are the kinds of activities that encourage the unique ‘peer to peer’ interactions between students, and/or the teacher, provided by a shared online space, a forum, a ‘wiki’ to use the term in it’s most fundamental sense:

a website that allows collaborative editing of its content and structure by its users.

“[A wiki] differs from a blog or most other such systems in that the content is created without any defined owner or leader, and wikis have little implicit structure, allowing structure to emerge according to the needs of the users.”

There are many platforms you can use for this, for us as a GAPPS school, Google Sites provide a 'wiki' environment that works magnificently. It is one of those applications of tech that goes deep with educators—if you want to see a teacher embrace and RUN with a tech tool, this is the one, it takes (literally) a few minutes to post a provocation (maybe longer to actually think of a good provocation) then sit back and watch the students take it and transform it.

All you need is a good question... 

As Erickson describes in her chapter on "Different Types of Questions to Support Conceptual Thinking",  the right blend of questions help students construct their own understandings. She recommends designing three types of conceptual question (factual, conceptual and provocative) to guide students thinking,

"students seek resolutions to queries or issues, search patterns and relationships, and bridge specific examples to conceptualise ideas, questions provide the necessary support or nudge. As a result, learning is more memorable and better retained because rather than being told what is important, students construct understandings themselves."
(Erickson et al, 2014, p. 56)

Now the teacher sits back and absorbs the feedback, watching the conversations unfolding, expanding and developing, but their role, is still critical. You see the kind of interactions afforded in a wiki space are very similar and yet very different to those in a typical face to face classroom discussion, and just like their face to face variety the have their potentials and pitfalls, which need to be monitored as feedback so they can us ethos evidence to feed forward, at class, group, or individual student level. I’ve just finished reading a little book by Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer that gives this kind of internet based interaction a great name —Interthinking.

“Mainly by using spoken language, people are able to think creatively and productively together. We call this process 'interthinking' to emphasise that people do not use talk only to interact, they interthink.” (my emphasis)

In Interthinking they describe three types of talk:

Disputational talk, cumulative talk, and exploratory talk. The first is one to avoid, the second is safe ... but ineffective, the last is what we want, that’s where the transformative activity, the interthinking, happens.

Here are some great examples of Interthinking I’ve grabbed from some of our class sites, trust me there is a lot more where these came from. Now they didn’t get this good on their own, skilled teachers guided and developed their conversations, they generally tend to start out as very pleasant but bland ‘cumulative’ talk (more on that in a minute), then, once they become more comfortable with the medium, it can unfortunately easily denigrate into ‘disputational’ argumentative talk, the role of the teacher is to ‘mentor’ these students to interact or ‘talk’ in ways that find a powerful balance between these extremes, talk that is ‘exploratory’.

Onine Discussions

Now, looking at the conversations here, you could mistakenly assume that all of it happened in the sole confines of an individual screen, students hunting and pecking away in isolation, but that is only half the story—all of these conversations are grounded in good old fashioned classroom ‘face to face’ which iteratively shifts online, and then back to face to face over time. Now that timeframe could be as short as a back and forth in one lesson, to an ongoing back and forth, iterative feedback loop over an entire unit, whatever the teacher feels works.

I strongly recommend that you read the book yourself, but in the interest of action, I’ve summarised the points that relate to the context of internet interactivity below. The following is quoted directly from the book, anything inside [square brackets] is mine.


Interthinking has been necessary for the development and dissemination of all human knowledge and understanding. However, as we will all know from personal experience, collective thinking is not always productive or successful. Two heads are not always better than one, and we need to understand how and why that is the case. (p 2)

Three kinds of talk in groups (as first reported in Dawes, Fisher and Mercer 1992). They can be summarised as follows.

Disputational talk in which
There is a lot of disagreement and everyone just makes their own decisions;
There are few attempts to pool resources or to offer constructive criticism;
They are often a lot of interactions of the open 'yes it is! – No it's not!' kind;
The atmosphere is competitive rather than cooperative.

Cumulative talk, in which
Everyone simply accepts and agrees with what other people say;
Children use talk to share knowledge, but they do so in an uncritical way;
Children repeat and elaborate each others ideas, but they don't evaluate them carefully.

Exploratory talk, in which
Everyone engages critically but constructively with each other's ideas;
Everyone offers the relevant information they have;
Everyone's ideas are treated as worthy of consideration;
Partners ask each other questions and answer them, ask for reasons and give them;
Members of the group try to reach agreement at each stage before progressing;
To an observer of the group, reasoning is 'visible' in the talk.

p 63

Digital technology and interthinking

Much as been written about the ways that electronic, digital technology can 'transform' or 'revolutionise' interpersonal communications. This is not mere hyperbole. People can now communicate quite easily with other individuals far away, send each other various kinds of multimodal information and organise group events and collective creations without being ever in the same room as other participants.
However, there is a danger that the wealth of communicative facilities offered by digital technology distracts us from concerns about the quality of communication. A clear line on the telephone has never ensured that two speakers would have a conversation in which they understood each other well, and the added visual dimension offered by Skype will not do so either. Computers in their various forms, and their software, are cultural tools that we employ well or badly. They can certainly make interthinking possible between people who would otherwise have been separated, and they can provide practical and very useful support for groups of people who are working and learning together.
[For some reason these researchers seem to focus exclusively on the IWB as if it is the most ubiquitous form of technology, and the most relevant? I would argue that the context that is considered here would be far more effective if each student had their own screen [situated]and were still able to talk together in the same physical space [located] while interacting in the same virtual space in real time (ie, synchronous not asynchronous). Such as perhaps annotating a shared image within Google Drive?]


Improvable objects and interthinking [Mutability]

As we saw earlier, the IWB [and surely any situated shared screen environment] is very useful for generating and recording synoptic, written conclusions; it is easy for the whole group to see and comment on what each member writes, and for the final text to be very quickly modified in light of feedback and evaluation of the emerging ideas (see Littleton, Twiner and Gillen 2010). One of our former doctoral students, Alison Twiner, has called the kind of text the children are creating on the IWB a 'digital improvable object' (Twiner 2011; Twiner, Littleton, Coffin and Whitelock in press). Teachers often encourage children to record what has been said in their group discussions. It was the classroom researcher Gordon Wells (1999) who first suggested that if they are treated as 'improvable objects' rather than finished pieces of work, such records can, if used appropriately, provide a cumulative basis of common knowledge upon which future discussions and other activities can draw and progressively build. Of course, such records do not have to be digital—they can also be created on paper—but computer–based technology offers a way of doing so easily, so that modifications can be made, several versions kept and copies distributed. Such digital records can also include other things such as diagrams and drawings that capture ideas created in discussions. They can offer a kind of half-way stage between the ephemerality [temporality] of talk and the permanence of written texts, and represents one way that technology can help people think collectively.

P78 [paraphrased]
Once saved, these collective creations are then available as a tangible results for discussion by groups of students. For example, a teacher easily project it onto a whiteboard screen for students to refer to, both as a powerful 'aide memoir' for initial reactions and ideas, and as a subsequent focus for collective thinking.

Other kinds of electronic text can also support the collective revision, development and evaluation of ideas. [...]  ...comment boxes enable groups of students to capture, during the data collection phase of their enquiries, important contextual information that would assist them in the interpretation of the data during analysis. Observations of the software in use revealed that as the students moved toward the reporting of the investigation, they also reworked, refined and continually edited and saved the text within the boxes [A process which would have become increasingly and inevitably extremely messy and convoluted if it had been carried out on paper]. In doing so the text became an ongoing work in progress, capturing emerging ideas and (inter)thinking, over time, in respect of the interpretation of data and the key findings. Their initial comments recorded in the boxes provided a base from which to develop and build shared knowledge and understanding. This process of reworking the comments in the boxes also helped students make connections across different phases of the enquiry and so help them maintain the 'thread' of their joint activity (see Littleton and Kerawaller 2010 for more information).

[Interesting to note that the researchers themselves could not consider how this activity could be practised in any other any other software environment, and seem to be fixated on only extremely sophisticated futuristic models], "as a tool for enabling into thinking by a group of, 'tabletop' interactive computers that are sensitive to touch may prove to be more useful.… Another researcher, Stahl (2011), has suggested that tabletops could serve as a 'multimedia tribal fire for the classroom, workplace, or social gathering', though they are currently so costly that it is unlikely that they will soon become as common in classrooms as the IWB]


Collaborative learning at a distance 

[Interesting to note here again that the researchers have a very narrow/fixed view of how the technologies can be used, for example the situated nature of these technologies means that they don't have to be used at a distance the same tool could be used very effectively within the same physical location, just because you can use them to span thousands of miles, doesn't mean that you have to]

There have been many studies of the use of electronic communications in distance education, but few have been studies of how spoken or written communication between students in distant locations might enable their learning or problem-solving.

One of the ways that communicating through text [why just text? What about image? Video] online is rather different from talking face-to-face is that it can either take place in real time, so that speakers respond immediately to each other, or people may take some time to respond. An online 'conversation' can be spread out over a period of days, weeks or even months. Ingram and Hathorn, two researchers into the uses of online communication in education, describe the differences between these two modes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) as follows:

"CMC can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous modes. In synchronous communications all disciplines are online at the same time, while asynchronous communications occurs without time constraints. Synchronous discussion involves the use of programs, such as chat rooms, instant messengers or audio and video programs, in which all participants exchange messages in real-time. Messages appear on the screen almost immediately after they are typed, and many threads can occur simultaneously. Those who have experienced these rapid exchanges of information, ideas, and opinions know that even extraordinary typing skill and quick response times do not guarantee that one can keep up with the constantly changing discussion. Hence, synchronous discussion may be best suited for brainstorming and quickly sharing ideas. In asynchronous discussions students can participate at any time and from any location, without regard to what other discussants are doing. Asynchronous CMC allows participants to contribute to the discussion more equally because none of the customary limitations imposed by an instructor or class schedule apply. Full and free expression of ideas is possible. Although these communications are text-based, they have little in common with traditional printed information. Experienced users use a style that is characterised by a abbreviated writing and emoticons (eg smileys). asynchronous discussions, which can occur over email or threaded web discussion, allow more time for considered opinions… And are more effective for deeper discussion of ideas." (Ingram and Hathorn 2004: 220)

[limitations, or why it is good to combine on-screen interactions with face-to-face interactions in real time in the same space, face-to-face]

Distance educators need to make the best use of the affordances of Digital technology to compensate for the loss of some of the most attractive and useful features of more traditional ways of teaching and learning [face-to-face].
And the open University, Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson 2009; Ferguson, Whitelock and Littleton 2010). She was interested in how students working online managed the task of building knowledge and understanding together, as they pursued assignment in groups. [...] Ferguson also usefully identified some important ways that asynchronous online interactions among a group are different from those among people working face-to-face, in terms of the resources group members have to support their interthinking. For example, they often have digital improvable objects of the kind that we mentioned earlier. As she comments:

They do not need to employ devices that will help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in a transcript automatically generated by the software. What they need to replace is the range of tones, expressions and gestures are available to support sense making in a face-to-face setting. They must find a synchronous methods of agreeing on what they have achieved together, and on how they can shape past dialogue to build shared knowledge. At the same time, they need to avoid disagreements and find a way of moving dialogue forward safely when only a subset of the group is online and able to participate. (Ferguson up. cit.: 168)

The temporally extended, and even disjointed nature of online talk creates different kinds of obstacles to interthinking from face-to-face settings. Requests for explanations and checks of understanding are more labourious to make, as are the responses they require; and so any disagreements that arise are harder, to resolve.

Various kinds of digital tools [...] can provide some valuable support for productive discussion. They can resource what Wegerif (2007, 2010) has called a 'dialogic space' in which different ideas, perspectives and understanding can be collectively explored, and material can be modified to record the development of a discussion and capture emerging ideas. Digital communication offers opportunities for students to interthink online, and to do so without the constraints of time and location that arise in more conventional educational settings.
more than one way of talking can be productive but discussion is likely to be most productive for learning if participants agree to follow the kinds of ground rules for discussion that will generate an online version of exploratory talk. Therefore, they should be expected to encourage universal participation among group members, seek ideas and clarification of them, challenge ideas and proposals in respectful ways if they have good reason to do so and support their own ideas and proposals with reasons and explanations.


Cooperation versus collaboration

[I believe that for formative assessment to be effective, when students are asked to work in groups, it is better to pursue a cooperative approach rather than a collaborative approach. This way students are accountable for their individual contributions as opposed to all of the contributions being mixed into a melange where it becomes difficult if not impossible to ascertain the accountability or input of specific individuals]

"Cooperation is defined as the style of working, sometimes called "divide-and-conquer," in which students split an assignment into roughly equal pieces to be completed by the individuals, and then stitched together to finish the assignment.
In contrast, we define collaboration as a more complex working together. Students discuss all parts of the assignment, adding and changing things in conjunction with one another as they come to understand more about the topic.
At the end, the final product is truly a group product in which it is difficult or impossible to identify individual contributions. There appears to be differences between corporation and collaboration in both the complexity of the interactions and the effectiveness for instruction and education."

(Ingram and Hathorn 2004:216)


When people asking what learning ‘transformed’ by technology looks like, this is the kind of thing I think of, and the SAMMS framework hops here—this kind of activity its:

Situation - these kids can continue the conversation anywhere, any place (even international), face to face or any space, or time that works for them. I would argue the context of a wiki (as opposed to a shared IWB in the book) has the advantage of adding the situated affordance of technology, making interthinking much more effective, by augmenting it with a greater focus on the kinds of intrathinking and reflection that can be afforded by reworking or contributing to a group discussion in asynchronous isolation subsequent to a synchronous face to face session.

Accessibility: No need to debate minutiae and semantics when clarifying points of fact or fiction are only a click away, got a reference to back that up? Great, link to it. The wealth of online resources offers great potential for learners; but the context of interthinking places greater demands on all parties to evaluate and filter the information they offer.

Multimodality: Now for the most part, Interthinking assumes a text only mode, but adding the contact of face to face automatically makes it multimodal, but it actually it isn’t difficult to multiply the modes in a screen context, the examples above  include a video, or image prompt used by the teacher as a provocation, as well as students relating their ‘interthinking’ to multimodal content they have posted, from image to video, to mind maps and presentations.

Mutability: The ease with which students can modify their content facilitates learning, but needs to be managed carefully to avoid ‘revisionism’ this is the teachers call, some like to encourage kids to go back and revise their posts in light of their changing position, others see this as potentially dishonest—Did I say that? No I didn’t [quick edit] .. see?

Social Network: This activity literally creates a ‘micro social network’ like a Facebook the size of your class, with all of it’s phenomenal benefits, minus the suspicious disingenuous marketing.


Ferguson R, Whitelock D, and Littleton K (2010). Improvable objects and attached dialogue: new literacy practices employed by learners to build knowledge together in asynchronous settings. Digital Culture and Education, 2 (1): 103-123

Ferguson R (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue, Unpublished PhD Thesis, The Open University. [Downloadable from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/id/eprint/19908]. Accessed January 22 2013.

Ingram A and Hathorn L (2004) 'Methods for Analysing Collaboration and Online Communications', in T Roberts (ed), Online Collaborative Learning: theory and practice, London: Information Science Publishing.

Littleton K, & Mercer N (2013). Interthinking: putting talk to work. Routledge.

Littleton K, and Kerawalla L (2012). Trajectories of inquiry learning, in K Littleton, E Scanlon and M Sharples (eds), Orchestrating Inquiry Learning, Abingdon: Routledge.

Wegerif R (2007). 'Dialogic, Education and Technology: expanding the space of learning, London: Springer Verlag.

Wegerif R (2010). 'Dialogic and teaching thinking with technology: opening, deepening and expanding the interface', in C Howe and K Littleton (eds), Educational Dialogues: understanding and promoting productive interaction, London: Routledge.