Friday, November 22, 2013

Who Can be Replaced by a Computer? Not I!

Dschen Reinecke // Wikipedia
Arthur C. Clarke once stated, "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be!" (Electronic Tutors, 1980.) I love this quote because it's my semi-sarcastic reply to concerns of teachers who fear online, blended or flipped learning. Now of course I'm sympathetic to these fears, and would never actually reply in such a way if a teacher were  afraid of the implications for future advances in educational technology. But I'll think it! 

Perhaps it is confidence or naïveté but blended and flipped learning do not worry me. For anyone who's led a flipped class, you realize that teachers play a more important, not less important role. In addition to the obvious like creating the videos, assessments, curating the content and making adjustments, the teacher has more contact with students in a flipped class. Watching the video is only a small part of the learning cycle. Students have questions, need motivating, and yearn feedback. In a given class period, I'm providing direct instruction and clarification to small groups and individuals. I'm asking questions to probe student thinking or to help them realize that they are mistaken in their thoughts. I'm lending a hand in experiment execution. I provide a gentle nudge to students off topic or give time management advice. I lead post quiz conferences for struggling students to help them realize their mistakes. I help negotiate social issues that interfere with learning or referee disagreements. I clarify points of confusion and identify whether the videos were effective. I provide feedback. If the original tools prove useless, then I'm changing learning materials on the fly. I'm slightly altering expectations and grading accordingly. I set up labs. I even facilitate whole class discussions and peer instruction. It's the simple fact that I'm invaluable. The course works because I'm constantly evaluating and making adjustments to the course and I'm negotiating the complex personalities of my students. A recent experience with a substitute proved this point. I don't recall students saying they missed and needed me after returning from an absence until this year. 

Hey, if a computer can do all of those things, then kudos to its designer. If I can be replaced by that computer, then I ought to be!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fluid Grading: Week 10 reflections

In our middle school, teachers can write Academic Notifications for students who struggle. These are notices that are sent home outlining specific issues ranging from academic to behavioral. This week I wrote my third Academic Notification this year. This is easily a tenfold reduction in notifications than in past years by this time of the year. I have typically sent notifications whenever a student failed a quiz, missed at least three assignments in a quarter and/or dipped significantly from earlier in the year. Don't get me wrong: I could have sent multiple notifications this year because students have failed quizzes and skipped assignments. The difference with this model is that a student can retake a quiz and jump from a 0 to a perfect score in less than 24 hours; this is no exaggeration, that jump actually occurred for one student. So by the time a notification would even be processed in the office, it would be obsolete. Even a student who skipped an assignment could make it up within a class period or at home that very night. The point is that the grades are so much more fluid in this model. I've seen a student in deep water on Monday but actually end up ahead of peers by Friday. I appreciate the hectic nature of the course because it seems more authentic. Just as microclimates can experience temperature fluctuations, a student's understanding of a concept can swiftly change from total confusion to sudden understanding. Ever witnessed an "ah ha" moment? This flipped model with traces of mastery and standards-based grading is responsive to these changes. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Flip Class as a Vehicle to Universal Design for Learning: Week 9 reflections


I received a wonderful letter from a parent. It was truly touching. I won't quote it here but I will explain the content. It was the parent of one of my exceptional students who has consistently worked ahead. The parent thanked me for allowing the student to work at his own pace and shared that this was the first time this student actually felt a science or math course allowed him to work at his own level. Now of course I'm sure that there are/were parents who could say something negative about the flipped class, so I won't overreach here. But I am glad that one of my main motivators to make the switch is actually happening. I do have a number of exceptional students who are ahead of the pace of the course and that number increases as time passes. If I stayed with the traditional model or even a synchronous flipped model, those students would still be kept hostage by everyone else's pace. They would never know what it felt like to get an education specifically geared to their them, rather than to the middle of the class.

I'm reminded of the Universal Design for Learning model. This model is inspired by a similar mode of architecture wherein the building is designed for the extremes rather than the middle. For example, if you build 7 foot doorways, everyone can fit through without ducking their heads. If you have wheelchair ramps at every entrance and exit, then everyone can enter and exit the building. The opposite approach would have doorways the same as the average height of people or only a few wheelchair accessible entrances and exits because most people can walk. If you design for the extremes, then everyone benefits.

The same approach can be done for education. If you design education by keeping in mind the extremes, those who are exceptional and those who have special needs, then you can reach all students. When I designed my flipped class, I kept in mind the strongest students I've ever had and the other extreme. I tried to design the course to meet those extremes, in order to reach all students. The traditional model is designed around the middle of the pack and doesn't do much for the most exceptional or those who struggle the most.

How do I meet the needs of the extremes?

1) First, by having my lectures on video, students can view the content on demand, rewind, pause or fast forward. They can watch the video several times. This really helps those who struggle the most because they typically need to hear and see things several times to get it. This helps the exceptional students because they can view the video once and move on and not be slowed down by the students who have questions or those who need to hear content repeated.

2) The first question I get from colleagues is what happens when a student has a question when they watch the video, especially at home. My students are required to complete a video form after/while watching a video. Part of the form is a required question. Students send their questions to me and I can respond, many times before they come to class. This works for students who struggle because they can ask any question without fear of asking a "dumb" question in front of peers. I can reply with an email or even plan to meet with the student during the next class. The exceptional student gets to ask a question that goes beyond the scope of the course and I can answer it without fear of confusing the students who might not even understand the question.

3) Asynchronous learning cycles further support individualized learning. Weaker students can slow down and work at their pace, while exceptional students can work ahead. The obvious implications are that some students will not finish the entire course, while others will learn content beyond the scope of the course. The former implication was hard for me to accept at first but when I remembered that the weakest students didn't actually learn all of the content in the traditional model anyway, I felt better about the decision. We rush all students ahead at a predetermined rate, usually equal to the pace of the middle students, without really considering that the weaker students haven't learned the earlier material. In a cumulative course, this approach is counterproductive. Either way, the weakest students will not learn as much in a year as the other students. At least in the asynchronous model, they have a chance of mastering some content and feeling good about really learning.


I have a weird policy regarding lab reports that I'm rethinking. Since the first lab assignments, I haven't let students work on their lab reports during class time. The major reason is that the reports take up too much time; if we stopped going through the learning cycle for lab report writing, we would get through a fraction of the curriculum. My workaround has been to allow students to record data and perform calculations in class but write up their reports and make graphs at home; in addition, students who complete the mandatory learning cycle tasks for the week could also use the remainder of the week to either work ahead or work on the lab reports. So far, this is the best compromise that I've figured out and still trying to think of an alternative solution.

Speaking of labs, running an asynchronous course makes it difficult to run labs that require the entire class. So far, I've managed to share last year's data to allow faster students to complete their writeup without waiting for other classmates. Once all of the students have nearly caught up, the entire class set-up the experiment and collect data to be used for next year. What I would like to do instead is let individual students or small groups set up the lab as soon as their ready, then share last year's data with them. This way they are setting up the lab as soon as it is relevant; ahead students won't have to set up a lab they already wrote a lab report for! I still haven't figured out a way to avoid using last year's data in an asynchronous course because I don't want the quicker students to wait too long and don't want the slower students to arbitrarily set up a lab when they haven't even learned the prerequisite material.

Friday, November 1, 2013

How to Write Calculated Questions in Moodle Quizzes

One of the most helpful questions in a Moodle quiz is the calculated question. Students perform calculations using a formula. Moodle allows you to ask an indefinite version of these questions by switching specific values. If you set up the question correctly, Moodle will insert random values (or values from a range) and will grade student responses. For example, let's say you want students to calculate the area of a rectangle but want each student to get different values for the length and width. You input the formula (A = LxW) and the parameters. Moodle will generate a different question each time by randomly selecting a value for L and for W. This is especially helpful in a mastery course where students are taking tests and quizzes at different times. Unfortunately, it is not a straight forward process. Below is a tutorial to walk you through the steps. The preparation will be worth it!

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Making Time for Synchronous Activities in an Asynchronous Flipped Class: Week 8 reflections

After last week's successful unveiling of peer instruction, which my students now affectionately refer to as Pi (pronounced "pie"), I instituted a few more beginning of class synchronous activities. This week, I added Metacognition Monday and Controversy Thursday, in addition to Pi Tuesday and Wednesday. Friday is a full work day since many of my deadlines are at the end of the school day on Friday. At the beginning of class on Mondays, I'll have students journal about metacognitive topics: how they are doing in the course, which topics they feel great about or not so great about, mapping goals for the week, etc. On Controversy Thursdays, students will discuss controversial topics related to the current unit. The middle of the week will be dedicated to peer instruction. 

I cheated on the first Metacognition Monday. Instead of a reflection, I asked students to organize their materials from the current learning cycle. This is in response to the loose papers and handouts I've noticed left in class. Now that students got the clear message that they'll be held accountable for keeping materials, I expect some of this lackadaisical behavior will change.  

Both attempts of peer instruction were successful. In both attempts, students were highly engaged. Generally, 8th graders seem to love debating each other. It was great to harness that desire to argue and apply it to science concepts. Who would've known that Punnett squares can elicit such vigor! In all attempts, incorrect responses decreased and correct responses increased after the student discussions. My favorite part of PI was the post voting discussion. I was impressed with my students's ability to explain why the incorrect choices were incorrect; more importantly and my eduwin for the week, they were able to explain the confusion that led to incorrect responses from other classmates. These discussions were informative; some sources of confusion were predictable but others were interesting. Most issues were those related to either reading comprehension or a conceptual misunderstanding. 

Near the end of the week we had our first Socratic Seminar. This was our first full class synchronous activity since the course scavenger hunt on days one and two. These discussions were a treat to facilitate and changing the pace for the synchronous discussion was the right move. Some students made interesting comments that their peers had not considered. I need to incorporate more of these rich discussions. 

I'm considering making most assignments optional for the students who are excelling. I mentioned in last week's blog post a student mentioned frustration about be required to do all of the assignments because he/she felt all of the steps were unnecessary to learn the content. I will reach out to a small group of students who demonstrate strong ability and will inform them that the video forms are now optional; in addition, they will no longer need to complete every question in the problem sets. I might denote specific questions as mandatory but otherwise they'll be free to pick and choose questions. I won't offer this option to all students because I want to see how it works first. There are logistical things I need to work through, like setting up exempt or optional assignments in calculations of grades. Of course there are pedagogical reasons to have some mandatory assignments. All students will have to perform the labs and participate in the exploration and revisitation of the exploration phases. Eventually, I want to make most assignments optional but I'm just not there yet. Some flipped teachers make their videos optional. In principle, I agree. In practice, this is difficult because my course is a hybrid of different levels of biology. Some topics we cover specific aspects that are closer to a 9th grade course and others are 11th grade and even above. My students learn Punnett squares at a basic level yet they perform chi square analysis. They learn of protein synthesis but not the names of specific steps. It's difficult to videos and readings that will be appropriate to my course unless I create them. I worry about students learning of vocabulary and details that we will not address. It's easier to find readings because I share links  and tell students to skip certain sections. My long term project is to write my own e-textbook tailored to the content of the course.