Cut exam correction time in half

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If you are a VCE teacher in the throes of preparing your students for the final exam, I don’t need to tell you how much time you are spending marking practice exams this week.  What I do need to tell you is that if you are marking multiple choice questions manually you’re not spending your time; you are wasting it.

ZipGrade is an app that lets you point your iPhone at a multiple-choice answer sheet, and ding! Correction done! It highlights incorrect answers, calculates the overall score and lets you export the data both as a PDF to hand back to students, and as a CSV (Excel) file for your own records.

It’s blindingly fast. A class-worth of papers will be marked in under a minute!

I’m no a fan of multiple choice tests. But as long as we are working in a system that requires us to use them, I’d prefer to see teachers spend their valuable time on something more creative than grading papers!

Publishing a podcast just got simple!

If you make a podcast for your students, you really should create an RSS feed for it – so they can subscribe using their Podcast app of choice.  There are lots of advantages in this:

  • New episodes are downloaded automatically in the background when the student is connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Students have control over playback speed.
  • The app remembers where they are up to if they don’t finish listening in one go.
  • They can create playlists for continuous play

The Problem

I’ve found lots of teachers who make ‘podcasts’ for their students don’t do this; instead, they simply upload the podcast to a folder on their school LMS and instruct students to go there and download it.  Even though services like PodOmatic make it simpler than it once was to create an RSS feed, I think a lot of teachers still just think there are too many hoops to jump through.

The Solution

I’ve just discovered a super-cool, and drop-dead simple service called JustCast.  Go to the JustCast website, click a button to allow access to Dropbox.  They then create a JustCast folder inside your Dropbox folder, and give you an RSS feed for that folder!

Any audio file you drag into that folder within Dropbox, gets pushed to the apps of anyone subscribed to that RSS feed. it’s so simple I’m stunned that it works – but, incredibly, it does!

The free service allows you to have three episodes in the RSS feed at any time. Adding a fourth episode will make the oldest episode unavailable to subscribers. Upgrade pricing allows unlimited episodes in the feed. (But three might be enough?)

I’ve discovered another really convenient use for JustCast – I’ve set this up for my own personal use. I’ve subscribed to my own RSS feed! Now any random audio file I want to listen to while driving, when dragged into my JustCast folder in Dropbox, appears in my podcast app along with all the other podcast I listen to. Sensational!


Student in a Flipped Class? Cut homework time in half using this tip!

Most of us read much faster than talking speed yet still comprehend what we read. In the same way, it’s possible to listen much faster than your teacher can speak. But many of us have never thought about that, because in real life, we only hear words as they are uttered. (In the classroom, the speed your teacher can move her mouth is holding you back!)

But If your teacher makes screencasts, videos, or audio podcasts, try playing them at double speed. You’ll be amazed to find that you can comprehend what you are listening to just fine. In fact, after listening for a while, you’ll discover that it starts to sound surprisingly normal. After listening at double speed, if I slow a podcast down to “normal” speed, it sounds comically slow!

So how do you do it?

With an audio podcast it’s easy. Almost all podcast players have the option to adjust playback speed. My favourite is Overcast. To my ears it does the best job of speeding up voice while preserving clarity. Plus it has some really innovative features like “Smart Speed” which reduces the length of the pauses between words; shortening the total listening time, without speeding up the words themselves. Brilliant!

Swift Player

For videos or screencasts on your iPhone or iPad, try Swift Player. It lets you speed up any video on your device, or online (YouTube, Vimeo, etc).

One curious reason students more readily listen to podcasts than complete traditional homework

I’ve always found that students are much more likely to watch a screencast or listen to a podcast at home, than to complete a traditional reading-writing homework task.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one that I’d never considered until recently is that psychologically it’s always easier to commit to a task if you know how long it will take. I’m much more likely to attend a working bee, join a committee or even go shopping with my wife, if I know in advance what my involvement will cost in time.

Think now, about a student contemplating her homework. If it’s a reading and writing task, she doesn’t really know how long that will take to complete. It could take 20 minutes but it might take 45. Her time commitment is indeterminate. So if she has half an hour ’til bed time, does she make a start on the homework? I offer that many students will put it off until tomorrow.

On the other hand, consider a student with a podcast to listen to. He knows precisely how long it will take, because it says so, right there in the progress bar! He knows he can listen to that podcast in 25 minutes and 45 seconds – leaving precisely 4 minutes and 15 seconds to brush his teeth and put on his pyjamas, before bed. Homework done. Check!

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the Whiteboard…” (Are you serious?)

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 8.49.07 pmOn the heels of my previous post about why some teachers fail to realise the efficiency gains of technology, Today I had a conversation with a teenager that went like this:

Student: “My teachers won’t let me take a photo of the whiteboard with my iPad.”
Me: “Are you telling me, they make you copy off the whiteboard with pen and paper?”
Student: “Yes”
Me: “How many of your teachers do this?”
Student: “All of them!”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Student: “They tell us that copying the board will help us remember and understand the information better”
Me: “And do you think it does?”
Student: “No, I’m usually not even thinking about what I’m writing; I’m just copying down the words”

I don’t buy for a moment that students will remember or understand information significantly better by copying! Telling that to students is as disingenuous as it is absurd! When I read the morning newspaper I don’t need to copy out the news stories in order to comprehend them! When researching a topic of interest I read relevant articles, maybe make a few notes and save them to Evernote for future reference but I don’t transcribe the articles in full onto loose leaf! What makes anyone think that copying paragraphs of text from the board will make students remember or understand? As you began reading this blog post, did the thought even cross your mind to start copying it out with pen and paper to aid your understanding? Of course it didn’t! That would be a prodigious waste of your time and would make little to no difference to your comprehension.

Let’s be honest. The real reasons teachers make students copy information from the board are:
(a) It pads out the lesson with busywork, so a very small amount of learning will use up an entire period (It reduces the teacher’s preparation time : class time ratio).
(b) It is the easiest way to “wing it” when a teacher hasn’t prepared a genuine and engaging learning activity.
(c) It keeps students seated, quiet and under control.

In 1989 copying information from the board was a practical way for students to collect a body of examinable subject knowledge to learn (i.e. memorise / encode), because schools didn’t have photocopiers, students didn’t have cameras, and nobody had Google.

In 2015, valid reasons for using a whiteboard might include sketching a diagram to answer an extemporaneous student question, teaching basic literacy skills (character formation, perhaps spelling) or to capture a group brainstorming session. A whiteboard is useful for that kind of thing. (And don’t be ridiculous – if your students have smartphones, let them take a photo, if it helps them!). But I can’t think of any good reason for entering class, with the intention of writing screeds of informational text on the board for students to copy like it were still 1989.

It’s a squandering of class time – a great example of wheeling technology, instead of riding it (to borrow the metaphor from my previous post).

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Teacher: “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”

A teacher said to me “I don’t have time to use technology in my teaching”.

What a strange thing to say! – I can’t think of any other professional occupation in which people feel that computer technology slows them down, gets in the way and makes their work less efficient? In other professions it reduces friction, increases productivity and saves time (and money).  That is why those industries least forgiving of inefficiency, are most invested in computer technology.

I don’t think the teacher I spoke to is alone, either (I think her feelings are quite common among teachers, actually). And what’s more, I don’t doubt that she is right! Technology probably does make her work less efficient. But that is because she’s doing it wrong.

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 5.37.57 pmSteve Jobs said that a computer is like “a bicycle for our minds” meaning that it magnifies the efficiency of our thinking the way a bicycle improves the efficiency of our locomotion. I love that analogy – and I think it’s very true, but it does, of course, assume that you actually ride the bike (rather than wheeling it alongside while walking). In order to ride a bike, you have got to stop walking. You can’t do both. If you’re not prepared to give up walking, then the bicycle is a hindrance.

When teachers describe technology as a hindrance to their work, I say that’s because they are unprepared to let go of their old methodologies. Instead of “riding” technology, they’re “wheeling” it alongside their old teaching practices.

Why your school needs clearly defined social media policies

pinnacleIt’s not to stop teachers from doing the wrong thing with social media; It’s to give them confidence to use social media well, knowing there is no appearance of impropriety.

If there were no balustrade on the ‘Pinnacle’ lookout in the Grampians, very few people would venture to the edge to take in the arresting view.  The barrier gives hikers confidence to go further than they would otherwise dare, because their safety is assured.  The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

The railing doesn’t restrict people; it liberates them to go further!

Is it appropriate for a teacher to reply to a student’s electronic message at 9:00 pm? 11:00 pm? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question, but I do think there should be a school policy about it.  If a student sends a text at 9:45 pm, and the school policy says 10 pm, a teacher can confidently reply, leaning against the balustrade of that policy.

I meet a lot of teachers who are reluctant to use “this website” or “that web 2.0 service” with their students for fear that doing so might make them the star of a story on 7’s Today Tonight (and not in a good way).  That fear can be soothed by creating well publicised, unambiguous and clearly defined policies.

Narcissus and the Selfie Stick

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.56.41 pmIn Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter, so good-looking that he didn’t consider any of his female suitors fair enough to be worthy of him.   One day he glimpsed his own reflection in a pool of water and fell in love!  Unable to resist the charm of his own visage, he surrendered to his fate, sank into the pool and drowned.

If Narcissus were alive today, I reckon he’d carry a selfie-stick in his quiver.  I’m just saying.

A USB Thumb-Drive for Both iPad and Computer

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 1.30.49 pmIf you work with 25 iPad wielding students in a classroom, then you already know that sharing large video files between iPads or between iPads and computers comes with some friction.

Sure,there’s a festival of ways to transfer content from a student’s iPad to your computer or vice-versa, or from a student’s iPad to another student’s iPad.  (AirDrop, Dropbox, Instashare, PhotoTransfer WiFi, Email, just to name a few) but each has it’s limitations – especially if your school’s Wi-Fi is flakey or the internet is slow.

A Mobi My iStick in your pocket is a pretty neat solution. When you plug the iStick into your computer it behaves just as any USB thumb-drive would – because it is a USB thumb-drive.  But slide the slider over, and at the other end is an Apple-approved lightning jack that fits into the lighting port on a student’s iPad.  It’s the first USB thumb-drive that works with an iPad and it lets you copy files directly between iOS devices (whether or not they are your own) and computers, without needing Wi-Fi, bluetooth or an internet connection.

What’s Good:

Copying files to the device from a computer is as simple as can be.  Transferring those files to an iOS device is just as straightforward. When you plug the iStick into your iOS device, a pop-up message asks to use the iStick. You click Agree. The iStick app opens, you select the “iStick” tab and you can see all the files on the iStick, open them, move them to the camera roll etc.  You can even play movies on the iPad screen, directly from the iStick without first copying them to the iPad (Super if you are running out of storage space on your iPad!).

What’s Not:

On the iOS side, things are not quite as simple as they are on the computer. You need to install the (free) iStick app on every iOS device that you want to use the iStick with. Working with Photos and movies is straightforward enough.  Within the iStick app you see a “Photo Library” folder. That shows you all the Photos and Videos on your iPad, which you can then easily copy to your iStick.  For other documents, however, the process is clumsy and slow. You need to first open the document in the app that created it (say, Pages) then choose “Open in” and select iStick.  Then you need to open the iStick app (on the iPad),  select “iPad” (or “iPhone”), navigate to the inbox folder, select the file and chose to move it to the Documents folder (still within the “iPad” tab of the iStick app on the iPad).  THEN (if you haven’t given up by now) you insert the iStick USB thumb drive, navigate to the Documents folder in the iStick app, and choose to move the file from there to the iStick. Once you have done that, it’s simple to drag it off onto your computer as you would with any USB thumb drive, but the process of moving documents to the iStick is horrendous!

My advice:

  • If you want to shift large videos or photos between devices quickly and avoid doing this over Wi-Fi – this is a great solution.  It would allow your students to create movie projects on their individual iPads, and then you could pass the iStick around and they could all copy their finished product to it.
  • If you want to increase the storage space on your iPad – because perhaps you have a model with only 16GB – again this is a great solution because you can store movies on the iStick and still play them from there without first having to copy them back to the iPad.  If you were to move the videos off your iPad any other way (Eg. upload them to Dropbox) you would then have to re-download them before watching them!
  • If you are travelling, and want a way to back up the photos and movies you are taking – or to transfer them from your iPhone to your iPad in the absence of Wi-Fi – it’s great!
  • But if you were hoping to use the iStick to conveniently shuttle all kinds of miscellaneous files – PDFs, text documents etc – between iOS devices like you are accustomed to doing with USB thumb-drives and computers … forget it!  Sure, you can move files that way. (It’s not that it doesn’t work, per sé) – but the process is so graceless that you’d be better off attaching your files to a self-addressed email!

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Do teachers need to make their own videos to flip their class?

Now that teachers can make use of the Khan Academy, Edrolo, and a smorgasbord of other quality content, Is there any reason for teachers to publish their own screencasts, videos and podcasts for their class? Isn’t that just re-inventing the wheel? That is a question I am asked frequently.

My answer is both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’.

No.  The most important aspect of the flipped classroom, in my opinion is NOT the videos or podcasts at all, but how teachers leverage and reapportion the class time that is reclaimed by relegating didactic instruction (where it is still needed at all) to a video or podcast. The fact that qualified teachers on Edrolo and other services have produced much of the content that needs to be covered, lowers the barrier to entry into the flipped classroom model.  So then, “I don’t know how to record a podcast” or “I don’t have time to make screencasts” are no longer valid excuses for continuing to waste valuable class time, standing at the front of the room ‘teaching’ recordable stuff.

Yes. We need to help students to see that despite their youth, they now have the ability to create their own quality, original content and publish it to a genuine audience, making an authentic contribution in today’s dominant media forms.  This is one focus that should be at the top of our list of things to reallocate class time to. I suggest that It is much easier (not to mention less hypocritical) to encourage students to publish their work to an authentic audience in video and audio if we are doing it ourselves.  And for a teacher, what more authentic audience do we have than our own students?

By all means, make use of the great work by other teachers – but supplement it with your own recorded lessons.  Show your students that when you tell them about the disintermediation of publishing (that in 2015 anyone can publish and have a voice), you yourself are walking the talk.  Don’t be surprised if your students find your videos more engaging and personal than the off-the-shelf ones, too.