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.

01 October 2017

21st Century Spelling

Spilling had never bin maw impotent

Spelling has never been more important, as my example above attempts to illustrate. In an age dominated by screens, misspelling is tantamount to an admission of idiocy—but the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment. Please note that none of the words in the title are actually misspellings, but mistakes they are, and a right twazzock you will look if you spell in a way that is overly reliant on proofreading tools as a safety net. It's time we took account of the fact that in a world dominated by screens the ways we teach spelling needs to evolve to take advantage of the unique affordances and challenges of spelling in a screen environment.

These days the likelihood of interacting with others in a digital environment is an extremely commonplace scenario. Even more critical, people who misspell in these environments are generally assumed to be less intelligent, less articulate, and despite their possible intelligence/experience, their perspective will be dismissed or demeaned if it is littered with misspellings.

It has never been more important to master the ability to spell correctly. 

Unfortunately most schools, despite the criticality of spelling in the 21st-century, still rely on 19th century strategies to teach spelling. This really does need to change. So, with that in mind...

Critical considerations:

  1. Children (and adults) can only spell words they know, sounds obvious, but so many of the spelling lists that are used with students contain words they do not know, so could not possibly be able to spell, other than through guesswork, which leads us to... The corollary to this is the simple fact that the skill of knowing or suspecting that a spelling is wrong is an essential aspect of learning how to spell, especially in a world where checking a spelling is as easy as 'searching it up' in Google, or just asking your smartphone to spell it for you. 
  2. There is a much greater validity to the skill of being able "guesstimate" in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), and ‘phonological awareness’ is more essential than ever, as an accurate phonetical estimation is relied on by computers to substitute for a correct spelling. A student who cannot phonetically 'approach' a word is unlikely to be able to approximate something that a computer can correct. Related to this is the critical importance of being able to spell the first half of a word correctly, most modern computing devices can now auto complete a word if a student is able to spell the first half of it correctly. Apple's 'QuickType' in iOS 8, and apps like "SwiftKey" utilise this approach very effectively, and the power of Dictation (speech to text) has never been greater, but it will still struggle with homophones (same sound different spelling and meaning). An alternative approach in a traditional 'spelling test' context is to award 2 marks to each word, one mark for being able to spell the word phonetically correctly, or for spelling the first half correctly, and 2 marks if the word is perfect. 
  3. Stop using spelling tests for whole classes with lists of words, this is a nonsensical approach, considering the sheer quantity of words in the typical English dictionary, somewhere in excess of 400,000 words. The words that children learn should be unique and curated from their own literacy life, related to their own writing, reading and speaking, and viewing and listening experiences, or related to specific vocabulary that they are using/used will need to use.
  4. Wordlists curated by students should be seen as a source of vocabulary expansion, not just for spelling. Becoming a personal thesaurus/glossary that they should review regularly when writing to enhance the richness of their prose; use it or lose it.
  5. Listening matters just as much than looking (Riesenhuber, 2013). If you can see the word before you spell it, then you're not learning how to spell, you're practising short term recall. Listening is also essential for checking spelling, now computers have the option to speak any word you can type, select the word and have the computer read it out loud, is this the word you were trying to spell?
  6. Less reliance upon "spelling rules" which are very rarely consistent, and in many cases can lead to a great deal of confusion. Like when students are asked to note the position of a certain vowel in a word and its impact upon other vowels or consonants within that word, also using acrostics like 'big elephants can always understand...' you get the idea, and of course they only work for one word… Instead focus on more reliance on building familiarity with the way words look and the way words sound, so 'look say cover write check' still works well as a useful skill/drill practice, (or better still: listen say type look) but with fewer words, more often. This is strongly related to the student's reading life as a synergetic enabler in their spelling life. This becomes a context where students are encouraged to see words as 'friends' and building a large community of 'familiar faces' ie, the more they see these words the more likely they are to be able to spell them, or arguably just as important in the 21st-century, to recognise when the word is not spelt properly, ‘it just doesn't look right'. We see words like faces? Yes, believe it or not, this is exactly what neuroscience (McCandliss et al, 2003) has taught us, more on that phenomenon below... 
  7. Skill drill tasks (practise makes permanent) should also be related to an activity that reinforces their comprehension of the meaning of the word, so ideally students should also invent (not copy) a sentence that uses the word, or even better, more than one of the words in the same sentence, that clearly demonstrates that they can use the word/s with an understanding of it/them. After all, what is the point of learning how to spell a word if you don't know how to use it? For some students it might be better for them to make an oral recording of them speaking the sentence rather than writing a sentence, if the writing is a challenge to reluctant writers, as the focus is on understanding meaning, and oral recall can be just as effective for building meaning, this is especially important with homophones.
  8. More recognition of the kinds of spellings that are particularly tricky in a screen centred writing environment, this means a greater emphasis on distinguishing between words with similar sounds and different patterns, homophones, homonyms, homographs.
  9. Making smarter use of digital tools to facilitate this kind of practice, while spelling games that are built on skill drill using pre-set wordlists are useful, but you should also encourage spelling drills that are built on individually curated wordlists. However these kinds of Apps are not very common, but at least one that does this very well is Squeebles SP, more on this below...
  10. Use any text app or word processor to spell check, before using a teacher. This could be a simple as a notes app on a mobile device, this will enable students to check spellings without the tedium of using a dictionary. Then a far more appropriate use of teacher time is to review spellings for careless mistakes, or more likely mistakes resulting from misconceptions about phonetics/word structure, especially spellings that alter the meaning of a sentence. Students need to be empowered to build habits of capturing/collecting words that they know, but cannot spell in their curated lists. The point is, it is better for the student to attempt to type the word in a text application and have the computer suggest corrections than it is for them to try and search for it in a dictionary. While the latter is still helpful, the former is a better cognitive process for learning the spelling of a word, and is also more relevant/likely as an activity or skill set in the 21st-century. Very few adults look up words in a dictionary, most rely on the prompt given by the computer in a word processing environment. Even better, if this list is 'situated' or cloud synced (Google Doc, iCloud Notes) they can access, add to and augment that list from home or school. 
  11. Encourage students to learn how to use the "define:" search term in Google, effectively turning any Google search window into a handy Dictionary, eg - define:magnificent
  12. Digital technologies are changing which words are traditionally understood to be "tricky" words/sneaky spellings… so for example any word typed in a text environment will automatically switch the 'ie' in a word like receive, but will not be able to distinguish between homonyms.

Don't teach, facilitate

Neuroscience over the past decade* reveals fascinating insights into the way our brains learn words. Studies indicate that we use the same parts of brain (both left and right) to process face recognition that we use to process word recognition. So much so in fact, that as we move from early childhood into adulthood and become more proficient in word recognition, our capacity to recognise and process faces is diminished—such is the veracity of the connection. 

The parts of our brain (The Visual Word Form Area) that recognise and process faces are the same parts that recognise and process words. This emphasises the fact that spelling is primarily visual and aural, so a rote learning, rule based model is less effective than building an awareness of the unique formation of every word through familiarity, not drilling lists.

Even more fascinating, the VWFA area, "when volunteers listened to spoken sentences, all their brains showed similar responses." When we read, we recognise words as pictures and hear them spoken aloud, we literally “hear” written words in our head (Dehaene & Cohen, 2011).

Words are fundamentally processed and catalogued by their basic sounds and shapes, through visual and aural practice. Think of the way we learn to recognise faces, and pronounce words—certainly not by processing and practising lists of them, we learned them through exposure, and continued feedback, and it just so happens that screens are ideal for immediate, context specific feedback, in way that spelling on paper can never hope to provide. Provide lots of opportunities for students to learn how to spell through this kind of exposure, not through drilling them in lists that have little or no relevance to their own reading, writing, listening or speaking experiences. 

Squeebles Showcase

Squeebles Spelling - multimodal drill and practice
I'm not usually one to emphasise a tool, but from time to time a tool emerges that has affordances that are ridiculous to ignore, Squeebles Spelling is one of those. Digital tools like Squeebles can transform spelling practice by making traditional equivalents pale in comparison, consider the following:


Click to see Squeebles in action! 
Kids can 'masquerade' as a parent or teacher to curate their own lists, careless errors are mitigated by the built in spell check—obviously this feature is not activated when they are actually practising! Alternatively, there are a wide range of built in word lists to choose from that cater to all skill levels.

Multimodality and meaning

It's not enough to spell a word, they need to know how it sounds and understand the meaning. In Squeebles kids can record the sound of the word, as well place it in a sentence, eg "Pear. I like the taste of a pear better than an apple. Pear." Better still make it fun by having the kids make up silly sentences, as long as it shows they understand the meaning anything goes! This makes the activity aural and oral - this way the kids say the word, hear the word, and see the word. 

Immediate feedback - differentiated

No need to wait for a teacher to collect in all the spelling tests, then wait a few days to get them all back, even then, actually acting on the spelling errors is a chore, never mind tracking these over time. Squeebles provides immediate feedback, but even better keeps a record of any errors in a collection called 'Tricky Words' that reflect the words that this individual is struggling with.


Last and maybe least, Squeebles 'gamifies' the successes into mini games, so kids feels a tangible sense of reward, over and above the real reward—improved spelling.

16 September 2017

Radioactive Overreactions

Yes iPads emit radiation; as do we all...

From time to time certain pernicious myths emerge from the depths of the internet, like this video that resurfaces periodically. The net result is usually the creation of considerable stress for loving parents who dread to think that there is even a vague  possibility that the devices that they and their children use everyday could possibly be harmful.

Some helpful facts...

Screen time

The actual percentage of the school day students use these devices is relatively small. They certainly never use the devices in close proximity to their heads, which is the basis of the research that makes claims about damaging radiation from mobile devices, and the models of iPads that schools use do not contain mobile SIMs that generate GSM frequencies.

Airplane Mode

Asking for Airplane mode to be activated is not a practical solution. Aside from the fact that most schools use MDM (Mobile Device Management) systems that rely on wireless connectivity to manage and monitor these devices, as well as to share student learning with parents via platforms like Seesaw; disabling WiFi on one device will not mitigate the issue when there are 10-20 other devices in the room emitting the same frequencies and, more to the point, when there are (harmless) wireless signals being bounced all round the room all day, all around the college and indeed all over the planet every day.


Do iPads emit radiation? Yes. But a radiation is no more intrinsically harmful than your body heat, which is also a form of radiation. The comparisons in the video made between the radiation emitted by a phone, and that emitted by a microwave are, quite frankly, ridiculous, like comparing body heat to a blast furnace. Wi-Fi signals use very low intensity radio waves. Whilst similar in wavelength to domestic microwave radiation, the intensity of Wi-Fi radiation is 100,000 times less than that of a domestic microwave oven. So if you encounter someone who talks about both as if they are the same should give you good reason to be suspicious of everything else they say as well... The amount emitted by a an iPad is millions of times less than the amount of radiation you are exposed to through natural sources such as going outdoors in daylight hours.

1:1 does not = increased use

A common misconception is that the provision of a device increased the amount of time our kids spend using a device, this is not why we use 1:1, we use 1:1 so it is easier to manage student content, and so students don't accidentally delete the work of other students, for more about this, please see my other post.

As a college we understand why parents who having heard rumours have concerns about the potential effects of microwave radiation from mobile devices such as iPads. A parent's concern for their children's welfare is of course understandable, but please rest assured that the College also puts the children's welfare foremost in all its decision making.

Radiation from Mobile Devices

When looking at any health or safety issue we do need to make a decision about where we gather our data from. In this day and age it is an easy process for an individual to present a specific viewpoint and to easily spread that message via the Internet. Once this message goes viral, as messages like this are prone to do, bear in mind the advertising revenue and free publicity generated are a motivating factor.

As an example of how individual sources can easily contradict each other, consider this Forbes article for an alternative viewpoint, and this article from “Wired Science” with a similar viewpoint.