Virtual Post-It Notes

Today in my Year 12 Biology class, i used a neat tool that I came across called Wallwisher I think its really cool. It uses a “stickies-on-a-wall” metaphor. You can add a Sticky note simply by double clicking anywhere on the wall and by clicking and dragging, you can reposition any note on the wall – allowing grouping of similar notes.

I simply used it as a formative activity – asking my students to write down anything and everything they already knew about evolution on post-it notes and place them on the wallwisher wall.  Anyone was allowed to write anything, and anyone was allowed to move stickies around to group them with other related comments. It was only a 5 minute activity – but really engaging, and it has some advantages over real stickies, in that (a) everyone can see the comments clearly from wherever they are (on his or her own screen) and (b) the wall can be saved  (c) you don’t need to be in the same place at the same time to collaborate on it (although my students were) and (d) A student has the option of being anonymous.

What other uses can you see for it?  I’m keen to hear your suggestions.

The Evolution Wall

Democratizing Education


Last century, a student was the ‘educational property’ of her teacher.  The teacher controlled what knowledge she had to acquire and the conduits through which it would be acquired. I know teachers who have felt personally offended to learn that one of their students was paying a private tutor for extra lessons!

If you are the sort of educator who is offended to think that your students might be asking help from someone else, brace yourself for what is inevitably going to happen, and is already happening in an incipient way: a democratization of education.

By “democratizing education” I mean that the day is coming and may already be here, that a student may not consider you to be her ‘teacher’, simply by virtue of the fact that your initials are on her timetable, and she is forced to attend to your classroom 4 times a week.

As an increasing number of teachers make quality podcasts, screencasts, vodcasts, nings, forums and other resources and make these available to anyone who wants to learn, students will have an ever-diversifying smorgasbord of learning communities to choose to belong to.  And this democratization is crossing the traditional boundaries between not only one school and the next, but between public and private schools, school districts, and even countries.

In my own case, I make a biology podcast specifically for my own 20 students, but it has a regular listening audience of about 4000 students!  In the last month there have been over 18,000 downloads (representing more than 270 GB of data).  The last episode of the podcast was an hour entirely dedicated to answering the questions sent in by listeners by voicemail and email.   Among those listeners are a number of students who cannot regularly attend class due to chronic illnesses, a girl who could not otherwise enroll in biology at her school due to a timetable clash, and another who described me as her favourite teacher – although she had only ever heard me teach via the podcast!  There is a middle-aged alaskan woman, and a 13 year old in Oklahoma who also listen – not because they are facing an exam, but because they want an education.

Meanwhile, I know that some of my students listen to a biology podcast produced by another teacher who has a very different teaching style to mine.  As more and more teachers make podcasts like this, students are not only being given choice over where they listen, when they listen, for how long they listen and how many times they listen to a lesson but they also have choice over whose lessons they listen to!

At the moment we are only beginning to see this happen.  But I think its inevitable.  And consider this: the most popular teachers in this scenario, may not necessarily even be practicing teachers!  They may be university students or retired teachers.  How relevant is it going to be for students to come to class at all in this future?  If the classroom teacher still sees himself as the ‘font of knowledge’ for those students, then, it may not be very relevant at all.  There has never been a more important time for teachers to ask themselves “what value am I adding to my students?”, and even “what is my role as a teacher?”  Nor has there been a better time for schools to question the current models of attendance and timetabling.

Visually Compelling, Instant Student Feedback: SRS on the Cheap



I spend a lot of time with computers and gadgets. I like them. But what gets me really enthused is when I find an ICT pencil that will do the job of a space pen (refer to earlier post on space pens and pencils). That makes it something that can be used by teachers anywhere, anytime at no, or very little cost.

This post is about one of the best pencils I’ve seen in a long time.


In 2004 i started looking at Student Response Systems (SRS), starting with the Promethean ActiVote. Like everything I do, this was not about the technology, it was about the teaching and learning.

I’d argue that good teachers have always sought feedback from their students in order to inform their teaching.  This feedback is sought  in a number of ways – from having students raise their hands, through informal quizzing right up to a full SRS.  The direction and pace of the lesson is then informed by that data – with everyone in the class feeling part-ownership in the path the class takes. That approach to teaching, has to be more effective than simply teaching what, to the teacher “seems like a good idea”. With a limited amount of class time, spending more time on things that are poorly understood, and less time on things that are well understood must lead to better outcomes (not to mention engagement).

The appeal of an SRS is that the teacher and students can get immediate, anonymous, visually compelling feedback that shows how well the class understands a concept, while the concept is being taught.  If students raise their hands, the feedback is immediate, but neither anonymous nor individual (whether or not a student raises his hand is likely to be influenced by the indications of his friends).  If students complete a quiz – even an anonymous one – the feedback is not instantaneous.  So an SRS allows us to achieve a quality of feedback that is not possible otherwise.


What stopped me investing in an SRS back in 2004 was the cost. The price tag is substantial.  A class set of  Promethean ActiVote carries a price tag of thousands of dollars. Others such as iRespond, or Qwizdom are also very expensive. I could have procured funding to purchase a set of these… but then what? I can hardly share that teaching strategy with colleagues, “Look what I can do! – You too could be teaching this way …. if you can find a spare $3000”.

So over the years I have tried a number of ways to achieve a similar result – getting instant feedback at low cost. Some of the systems I tried were OK – but none of them were Ideal.  probably the most successful was the survey tool built into SharePoint – but even that always seemed clumsy, required a lot of page-refreshing, and wasn’t very visually appealing.


Last year I became aware of a web 2.0 site called “polleverywhere” ( I would highly recommend its use as a free SRS. Last year I used it to have students vote on a response from their mobile phone (that is how most people use it, I think). Students say its like voting for a contestant on Australian Idol. Its quite engaging and the results appear on the website instantaneously as the votes come in. The downside, of course is that each vote costs each student the cost of an SMS. In my experience, that’s not a deal breaker for most students for one or two questions, but if you had ten questions, it will cost each student over $2. Its still a LOT cheaper than an SRS like Activote… but at $2 per student that is costing the class about $50 for a ten-question quiz!


BUT Polleverywhere also has the option to vote using a computer – ‘web voting’. That is what I have been doing this last two weeks. It has been a process of trial and failure – finally resulting in something that I’d label a success, that I will use again and again, and that I want to share with my colleagues.

I set up 10 questions in Polleverywhere (that is, ten ‘polls’) about enzymes.

I then created a new SharePoint site with nothing but ten XML webparts. If you don’t have SharePoint, you could use a wiki, or any other site that lets you embed XML code in the page.  I also tried it with Wikispaces and it worked fine.

Beside each poll on Polleveryhwere, there is a link “Embed in Blog or Web Page”. Clicking this gives you the XML code for that question. Copy that and paste it into the XML code Web Part in the SharePoint site.

To visualise the results fo the votes, you could simply display your Polleverywhere site on the data projector, But you can alternatively download a PowerPoint slide of each graph – or (as I did) download an OS X dashboard widget.  Either of these options adds a real fluidity to the flow of the lesson – negating the need to click back and forth, loading one page after another.

By displaying the PowerPoint slide or Dashboard widget on the data projector, the class can see the results graph as they are voting. Using the dashboard widget is quite neat, as it will show over the top of a PowerPoint or Keynote slide, so you can call up the poll at any time during your presentation. Alternatively, you can just bring up the widget, without needing to have PowerPoint in slideshow mode. That lets you use it with other applications on the screen – perhaps some simulation software, or a website.

Students log into the SharePoint site on their computer in class and as we get to each question, they click the option that they think is correct. The graph on the data projector responds by changing dynamically as the votes are entered. It is worth mentioning that there is NO need to refresh either screen at all during the lesson (which pleasantly surprised me).

Instant, Individual, anonymous, visually compelling class feedback!! – much as you can achieve with a $3000 SRS, but free.  OK, its not a space pen.  A dedicated SRS would be do the job better.  But this can be used by teachers right across the school.  To me that makes it a better option.

The screenshots below show a question, on which 75% of my class chose the wrong option.  As a result, we spent considerable time exploring that concept.  But skipped others on which 100% of the class chose the right option.


“Part of a Bigger Discussion” or “Not Being Ignored”

Traditionally, society has seen students as those who are “getting ready to enter the world”.  Its not uncommon for a student to ask “when am I going to need this [insert skill] in my life?” (as though their life will start once they leave school).  I think even students have been conditioned to think that school is a training ground for later when they will take their place as a valuable contributor to society.  

Web 2.0 gives us a different paradigm.  If you are like me, you feel excited and just a little overwhelmed with all the new web 2.0 tools there are available to you, and you are constantly re-thinking the way you do your job, and even what your job is!  School did not prepare me for this!  So in what sense was learning at school a ‘training ground’ for my later life?  I was a learner at school and i am a learner now. Learning is a continuum. 

But the other side of the coin is that students no longer have to wait to leave school to become contributing members of society.  Just as they will be learners later in life, they can be contributors now.  Contribution can be a continuum, too.

Recently I set my students a task of researching the evolutionary relationships (phylogeny) of a species.  The topic is mandated by the VCAA.  But instead of reporting the fruit of their research as a paper, a poster, a powerpoint presentation… to be seen only by me, and perhaps some classmates – I asked them to edit a page in Wikipedia.  

There are a few reasons why I chose to use Wikipedia, rather than (for example) creating our own class wiki for the purpose.  The most important of these is that because Wikipedia already exists and is read by thousands of people, my students contributions would be noticed, not just by educators or fellow students, but by people with a specific interest in the subject they were writing about.

The experience has been interesting.  Students were immediately and visibly excited when I told them about the task.  This excitement has continued with some of my colleagues finding out about the project because students have been talking about it (One teacher heard about it from an excited student he met on a train ride from melbourne during the holidays).  Now, If students are discussing “homework” as cool, during the holidays… that indicates that it is engaging.

What really makes this project exciting to students is that it is “real”.  That’s what the students are saying.  It’s cool because it’s real. As one student wrote in her correspondence to the person who ‘edited’ her work: “.. were all excited to be a part of a bigger discussion…”.

As students have edited their wikipedia pages, it started getting really interesting.  Some of them were finding that their work was quickly deleted (in one case it took less than 3 minutes), and in investigating the history, they were being deleted for a variety of reasons… mostly which were explained by the person who deleted it.   Sometimes this was because they had stated a fact but not substantiated it by citing a reliable reference.  Sometimes it was due to spelling errors, or a writing style that was not “encyclopedic” in tone.  All good learning experiences – raising the bar for my students in terms of scholarship.

You might think that having your work deleted would be deflating.  Initially, perhaps it was for some.  But what I then saw was my students having another go… adding the missing citations, fixing spelling or formatting – trying to make it perfect before submitting it once more.   At the very least, students on reflection were saying “at least my work wasn’t ignored”.  When students produce work we have always tried to publish their work in some way.  But really, honestly, most of the time their work IS ignored by all except their teacher, classmates and family.  But my students were excited that the research they were doing, and the report they were making was not being ignored.

In one case a student’s work was deleted, but no reason was given.  Using the “talk” feature, the student was able to ask the “person” (presumably a marine biologist) why his work was deleted.  The response… the reader thought that the formatting and some expression was clumsy.  So he had taken it down and then a short while later put it back up again,  edited and reformatted.  In any case, my student had been involved in a genuine exchange.

The New Rules of Engagement

 I’ve recently read Michael McQueen’s book “The New Rules of Engagement“.  I’ve been recommending that all teachers read it.  I read it in one day!  (Those who know me well will realize how unusual that is for me.)

In his book McQueen, a social researcher, describes the characteristics of “Generation Y” (those born from the early 1980s to the late 1990s) and compares them to “Generation X” (mid 60s – early 80s) and the “baby boomers” before them (mid 40s – mid 60s). 

As I was reading his book, there were a number of things that stood out to me and helped me to make sense of what I see happening in schools between teachers and students. 

The following is not meant to be a précis of Michael McQueen’s book.  In fact I have only touched on two of the author’s 8 “paradigm rifts” – fundamental differences between the way Gen Y kids see the world and  Gen X and Boomers do.  Instead it is a record of the thoughts that have been swimming round in my head since reading it, and looking at my classroom and my school through McQueen’s lens.


Point 1.  RESPECT: Gen Y kids don’t respect position, they respect people.

Members of Gen Y, contrary to popular opinion, are not lacking in respect.  In fact they may have more respect to give than Gen Xers!.  However they don’t give respect to someone because of their status or position, but rather, because they have earned respect (p. 65).  They don’t give respect because they “should” they give respect because they choose to.  The implications of that for teachers can’t be overstated. If you are a teacher, your Gen Y students won’t respect you just because they should, just because you are a teacher, just because you are older than them or just because you insist on being called “Mr…”.  They will respect you if you exhibit behaviors that make you worthy (in their eyes) of respect.

Point 2.  COMMUNICATION: Gen Y kids value unbroken communication pipelines. 

For Gen Y kids… being in communication is more important than it was for Gen X kids.  And what’s important is not WHAT is being communicated. Communication itself is the important thing.  A student will come home from school, go straight into her room and log on to MSN or MySpace to chat to the same friends she has spent the day with.  Her mother says “What could you possibly have to say to your friends? Haven’t you been with them all day?”  But her mother misses the point that what’s important is not WHAT her teenage daughter is communicating; its THAT her teenage daughter feels the need to be in communication.  It’s all about relationships and relating. In McQueen’s words instantaneous communication is “core to their existence” (p. 72). 


As I read McQueen’s book… I had many thoughts.  But these ones have occupied my mind a great deal. When you put point 1 together with point 2, I think you can make some interesting predictions.  

Prediction 1.  Students are likely to respect teachers who make it possible, even expected, for them to communicate with each other anywhere, anytime (even if it is about classwork).  So using communication tools such as MSN, social networking sites, discussion boards, mobile phones, elluminate etc is likely to be met with a great deal of respect.

Prediction 2. Teachers who confiscate mobile phones from students do so at the risk of losing the students’ respect as they are removing their students’ communication tools – attacking the “core of their existence”.  

Prediction 3. Many teachers will find it hard to engage students and perceive them as disrespectful, because they are insisting that their students, upon entering the classroom, cut all lines of communication both with the outside world, and those sitting next to them.

Prediction 4. Students are likely to be motivated to study if that study is being done in a way that encourages online interaction when they are at home.  (Remember its not about WHAT is being communicated – Gen Y kids want to communicate.  If you give them a work task that requires them to communicate… it will engage them).

I decided to test these predictions, gently.  So I asked a friend of mine, who is an Assistant Principal whether the teachers who routinely confiscate students’ mobile phones are also, generally, the teachers who most struggle to win student respect.  The answer (with barely a pause to think): “yes”.  Of course it’s possible to question cause and effect here.  But if McQueen is right, and I suspect he is, then respect from our students will be predicated on whether or not they perceive us as teachers who help them build meaningful (= learning) relationships.

Am I building communication channels, or dams?

iPhone 3G and the cloud. The game changed this week.

I’ve had an iPhone 3G for a week now. I have to say, I love it. I think, personally, that the iPhone changes the game as far as education and mobile devices is concerned. OK, Its not the first smartphone with web browsing, email, etc… but it is the first smart phone that I think will appeal to a teenage demographic. Why? Because its cool. Because it’s also an iPod. Because the graphic user interface is slick and sexy, and because students are currently carrying an iPod AND a phone, now they can carry the one device that is both. Because students WANT iPhones. Since I got mine…students have been drooling over it (not literally – I don’t let their saliva get anywhere near it!!). A number of my students have already decided to buy one. Now if students start carrying smart phones around, that will have a significant impact on their ability to access and share information. I think we are witnessing a pivotal moment in education.

But it’s not just it’s lovely GUI and svelte styling. What has impressed me most about the iPhone is it’s integration with Apple’s “MobileMe” service. Despite Apple’s rocky launch of MobileMe I have found it to work almost seamlessly.

MobileMe is an example of cloud computing. Rather than storing your files (emails, calendar, contacts, internet bookmarks, etc) on your computer’s hard drive, you store them on a server (or cloud) that you access with any device that has an Internet connection. For example, my calender, address book, bookmarks, email are now all in that cloud. As a result I can add an appointment to the calender on my computer and when I look at my iPhone it is there. There’s no need to plug the iPhone into the computer to sync them, they’re just always in sync. I started writing this blog post using my computer and here I am working on it using the wordpress application on my iPhone. If i delete a bookmark from my iphone, it is also removed from the bookmarks in Safari on my laptop. If I add a contact to my address book on my iPhone, it is already added to the address book on my computer/s.

It’s not perfect (yet) but it’s close enough that I can see the future. And I think that cloud computing and devices like the iPhone will have a profound effect on teaching and learning in schools. How long will it be before we see most kids with a device like this in their pockets? Not long, I don’t think. That made me start thinking about the implications of this on classrooms and schools. Here’s my list, but I’m sure it’s far from exhaustive.

1. The cost of computers will fall because a computer or device will need less and less storage space and processing power (storage and processing being done in the cloud instead of on the local computer). Also since students will buy these devices and be paying for the internet usage, the cost to schools will decrease even further.

2. Banning mobile phones and iPods in schools will be even more absurd than it is now, as these devices will now enable students to research, write blog entries, email, manage and share calendars and bookmarks. If we ban iPhones and other similar devices, schools will (at best) become increasingly irrelevant to students’ lives and (at worst) be standing in the way of our student’s learning potential. That’s a position I don’t think schools can afford to be in.

3. Schools that permit students to have and use iPods but not mobile phones will have to rethink that policy, as convergence is now a reality.

4. Student use of blogs, discussion boards, Instant messaging, social networking sites and chat will get a shot in the arm as students can blog on the bus ride home or leave a question or comment on a discussion forum while snuggled under the covers in bed at night. (The adaptive keyboard in the iPhone makes it possible to type really quite quickly compared to a conventional mobile phone).

5. Schools (whether they face the fact or not) are losing their ability to filter internet content that students are downloading while at school. So blocking sites like youtube is now as ineffectual as it is impossible since the iPhone has a youtube browser built right into the main menu! Instead we need to find other ways to promote the cybersafety of our students – and in my opinion, education is the only way to do that.