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!

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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This is New! ‘Swivl’ for iPhone – Your ‘Personal Cameraman’

A breath of fresh air for vodcasting

If you’ve ever made a video-podcast, you know how restricted you feel. You have to set your camera on a tripod, take careful note of the field of view, and make sure that while you’re recording, you stay within that area. That’s not difficult if you are just sitting in front of a webcam. It’s much more of an issue, however, if you are demonstrating a practical skill that requires you to move around, or if you like to pace back and forth while talking.

Swivl solves that issue.

I bought one of these cool gadgets a few weeks ago and have been delighted with it’s performance and ease of use.

Swivl is an iPhone mount, with a built-in IR receiver, that tracks and follows a remote transmitter, which you carry in your hand, or clip onto your lapel. This gives you the freedom to move around, without leaving the camera’s field of view, because the camera follows your movement. The Swivl will rotate horizontally through 360°, and also tilts up and down through a small range.

The hand-held transmitter, also contains a quality microphone, which transmits your voice to the iPhone. That means that the audio doesn’t suffer if you walk away from the camera. (I have embedded an example video below which demonstrates this).

Note: The remote microphone function, the remote record/stop function and vertical tracking are managed via the iPhone app. These features are therefore not available if using anything but an iPhone. There is no Swivl app available for Android. That said, basic horizontal tracking can be used with any camera-phone or pocket camera.

The Good

  • Horizontal tracking is silky-smooth.
  • Swivl can be mounted on a standard camera tripod or simply placed on a flat surface.
  • Videos can be saved to the camera roll, or uploaded to YouTube from the Swivl app.
  • Horizontal tracking works with any camera phone (not just iPhone), or even with a pocket video camera such as the flip. The Swivl comes with an adaptor that can be fitted to the screw mount on any video camera.
  • The microphone quality is very good but as expected has a fairly high gain. I wouldn’t use it for making an audio podcast, but for a vodcast, it’s awesome!
  • The build quality of the unit is quite good (except for the battery compartments – see below).

The Bad

  • The automatic vertical tracking works well, but is a little bit jerky sometimes. I have found that unless I really need vertical tracking, it is better to turn this feature off, which can be done in the settings on the iPhone. You can still force the unit to track vertically by pressing a button on the remote (it’s still jerky).
  • The battery drawer on the main unit opens too easily. I found that if I transport the device anywhere, it will pop open. I now have it stuck closed with duct tape.
  • The battery compartment in the remote transmitter/microphone is even worse! In fact to start with, I couldn’t even turn the remote on. I had to open it up and bend the terminals to make proper contact with the AAA batteries, and then duct-tape that closed as well.

Features I’d like to see

  • You can buy an AC adaptor for the base unit, rather than using AA Batteries. But it’s disappointing that even with the AC adaptor, the unit won’t charge the iPhone.
  • It would be awesome to have the option of video zooming as you walk away from the camera.


At the time of writing, I don’t believe there is an Australian distributor for Swivl. I had to order it from the USA, at The price was US$170 plus postage and handling.

“Upskirting” and mobile phone bans

A school’s principal said to me:

“Mobile phones are banned at our school and so long as I am Principal they will stay banned. Here’s why: lately we’ve been having a real problem with year 9s using their phone camera to take photos up girls’ skirts and sharing the pictures around!”

I do understand her righteous indignation.  But I also think her strike is misdirected.

My response is twofold:

Firstly, prohibition is evidently not working because the violation of girls’ honour that she described has been going on despite the school’s mobile moratorium!

Secondly, but much more importantly, the real issue this school faces is not really a mobile phone issue at all. Banning phones doesn’t address the real issue – that students in her school apparently have a flagrant lack of respect for others’ dignity!  Addressing that issue, however, is complex and difficult.  It’s far simpler to make a scapegoat of mobile phones. Blame the phones; ban the phones; enforce the ban. Problem solved. (But is it, really?)

Banning mobile phones makes less sense than ever.

In many schools I visit, mobile phones are still disallowed, or more often, can be carried to school but must be stored in lockers or switched off in class. This seems especially the case in Primary Schools, but is also true in many Secondary Schools.

I think, this is simply because many schools haven’t revised their mobile phone policy in recent months. In the olden days (say, 2009) There was an argument to be made, that mobile phones in the classroom would be a disruption because students might not be discerning in their use (especially in regard to text messaging). Easier, than to educate students about courteous phone use, was to simply ban them. Problem solved! For the record, I never agreed with that line of thinking – but I can understand why so many schools have taken that approach.

It gets a little silly though, when a school with a “no phone policy” implements an “iPad program” – and that is happening more often than you might imagine! The iPad now (since October 2011) ships with iMessage, an app that allows free, unlimited text messaging between iOS devices (iPads, iPhones, iPod Touch) and Macs with iMessage installed. (As an aside, iMessage is currently an optional download for Macs, but the next version of OS X – Mountain Lion – will similarly ship with iMessage pre-installed).

As with all Apple-installed iOS apps (Calendar, Mail, Settings, Safari, etc) the iMessage app can’t be deleted from the iPad even if you want to! (see image above).

This time last year, it was possible to stop students texting in class by simply prohibiting mobile phones. Now to achieve the same outcome we would need to extend the ban to cover iPads and in the foreseeable future, laptops too. It’s time to take the only reasonable course of action (which was always the most prudent course of action): to re-write our policies to welcome all devices, and do the hard work of teaching our students to use them judiciously.

The opening address from Norm Fuller, the President of the QSPA (Queensland Secondary Principal’s Association), At last month’s QSPA annual conference, centred around his forecast that “The future of education is ‘Mobile'”. If that is true – and I don’t doubt it is – then banning tablets in school is borderline negligent. But if we embrace tablets, it makes little sense to ban phones.

More Reasons Our Class Facebook Group Is Better Than My School Discussion Board

Since writing this earlier post “Why the Facebook Group my Students Created for Themselves is Better Than the Discussion Forum I Created For Them”  a number of other advantages have surfaced.

‘Likes’ lower the participation threshold

The ability to “Like” a post makes it possible for students to contribute to a discussion, without necessarily having to compose a significant new thought or question.  It lowers the participation threshold.  As a result the level of participation increases.  (see image below)

‘One click entry’ lowers the inconvenience barrier

Logging into my “official” discussion board, requires a student to enter a URL (or click on a bookmark), then type in a username and password.  While that is not prohibitively cumbersome, it’s certainly a few extra steps that you have to deliberately take to visit the discussion.  Compare that to a Facebook Group, where students are generally already logged in to Facebook anyway, so visiting the Facebook Group, requires (effectively) no log in.

Cross-posting from YouTube makes sharing seamless.

If a student or teacher is watching YouTube videos and finds one that is relevant to what is being studied, s/he can post the YouTube video directly to the Facebook Group wall, without having to leave YouTube – or even having to pause the video!  Back on the Facebook Group, classmates can watch the YouTube video right there on the wall, without having to leave Facebook!

The Facebook Group attracts a different crowd.

Our school-based discussion board was visited regularly by some of the most academic and enthusiastic students but only occasionally by others.  The Facebook Group is quite different.  It’s visited regularly, even by students who rarely visited my school discussion board. The reason for this is quite obvious.  Less academically inclined students are often the ones who spend the most time of an evening socialising on Facebook!  When they see that little red notification flag appear – they are just one click away from reading and ‘liking’ what they read.

Free Social Networking – lowers the mobile cost barrier.

Even for students with a smart phone (about 65% of them now) visiting our old discussion forum is not only fiddly -but uses mobile data – which, depending on the student’s mobile phone plan, can be expensive.  But many pre-paid mobile phone plans include free Facebook and Twitter access.  That makes our Facebook Group  very accessible via mobile phone. (not to mention that the Facebook iPhone app is quite slick).

What’s the Downside?

The biggest downside of a Facebook Group compared to a more traditional old-school discussion board, is that in most schools Facebook is blocked on the school network.  This is less of an impediment to students than one might expect as most VCE students now have a smartphone (assuming phones are not also banned) so can thereby step around the school’s network when it gets in the way of their learning. ; )

Phonecasting with ipadio

It has never been easier to have your students make a podcast and publish it to the Internet.

I’ve been looking for something like ipadio since Utterli discontinued its support for Australian phone numbers around this time last year.

The ipadio service allows a student to pick up any telephone and record their phonecast (or “phlog”) directly to the web.  Best of all, its completely free.  Even the call is to a freecall 1800 number! (note: 1800 numbers are not free from cellphones). In comparison, even when Utterli was available to Australians, it cost a local phone call and if outside Melbourne or Sydney, users were charged for a long-distance call.

ipadio works seamlessly, too.  To test it, I gave my students each a small research task – a question to find an answer to – and asked them to ‘phlog’ their response.  If you would like to see the results, have a look at my students’ phlogs.

The best way to set this up is to first create a class blog (I use WordPress – but you could alternatively use Posterous, LiveJournal or Blogger).  Then have each of your students point their browser to to set up a free ipadio account which takes about 5 minutes (remind them to sign up using their first name only).  ipadio will give them a 1800 number to call and a 4-digit PIN number.  Once logged in, have your students click the “Social Media” tab, and fill in the details of the class blog site you created earlier.

That’s really all there is to it!  Now students just need to pick up a telephone, dial the 1800 number, enter their PIN, wait for the tone and start speaking.  Whatever they record is cross-published to your class blog where you and your class can listen to and comment on each.

Obviously there is no easy way to edit your recording or add jingles and sound effects in post production (because there is no post-production!), and the audio quality is limited by the quality of the telephone’s mouthpiece – so I won’t be using ipadio to record Douchy’s Biology Podcast, but when all I need is a simple and elegant way to get my students podcasting from home, or anywhere,  ipadio is just what I’ve been looking for. In fact, it feels almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

Open Testing

Today I gave my year 8 Astronomy students a test.  But it was not like the tests I have given in the past.  I told them that they were allowed to use any resources they wanted to.  Their test still had to be their own work, but they were allowed to “phone a friend*”, or use any tools they brought with them.  Some brought their iPhones with astronomy apps on them, some brought more traditional plansipheres, some used the Mia Mia service to text away for information they needed to complete the tasks I had set.  They were, of course also allowed to use their class notes, etc.

The questions on the test were suitably open-ended so that finding factual information was not sufficient to answer a question.  They still had to be able to apply the facts they were finding.  And I hope that students who know more, and understand more, will have been able to answer the questions more fully and in a way that shows the fruit of their study.  But even weaker students (who didn’t know much) were able to make an attempt on the test.  To me, this kind of assessment seems much more relevant to the real world than a more traditional test.  Its hard to imagine many situations in the future when these students will have to complete a task without access to information from outside their own heads.  The ability to resourcefully and selectively access needed information and then use it judiciously is more important, I think, than remembering a list of things that the teacher has told them “will be on the test”.

More importantly, I think it helped my students to see that I am serious when I tell them that I don’t want this to just be a class, where they turn up, learn what they are told to learn, and then prove it in order to “pass”.  No – i want it to be a learning experience, where they learn for the joy of learning, and show me and each other what they have learned.  There is a difference.

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*as long is it was a friend outside the class.

All abuzz over Yuri

Today in my Astronomy class ( year 8 ) we started learning about space exploration.  Students knew who the first person to walk on the moon was, some even knew who the second was.  Nobody knew who the first person in space was – although some thought it might have been a Russian.  Now, suppose I had simply told them who it was ([whispers] It was Yuri Gagarin but shhhhh! because at this point in the story my students don’t know that yet). How engaging would that have been? Right! it would have been boring and the lesson would have been utterly unmemorable.

Instead, I told them we were going to have a contest.  The first student to get a text message on their phone, with the correct answer to the question would be the winner.  Here’s how events transpired…


The truth is, of course that we were all winners.  We’d had fun, learned something… no, not that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space – just between us, I don’t really think that’s terribly important to remember – you can always look it up if you need to know it – but the important lesson was in the value of a PLN (personal learning network).  If you’re reading this blog, you probably realise the value of a PLN in your own career, but how often do we encourage our students to think about cultivating a PLN?  In a world where information is voluminous, ubiquitous and free, a person’s professional success will not be predicated on an ability to remember facts, but on an ability to quickly access information on the fly.   A PLN is powerful for that.

If nothing else, the lesson was memorable. The engagement of students made it a worthwhile novelty – you could see it in their faces.  Their pupils were dilated, they were smiling and there was a buzz in the air (literally! – from the ringtones).