Category Archives: EdTech

We need more invisible refrigerators

This year I am taking part in an EdTech/21st century year-long PD program called Cohort21. We had our first face to face session last Saturday, and the morning discussion centred around the use of technology in the classroom. The following are some thoughts arising from that session:

During the morning discussion of technology in education at the first face to face session of Cohort 21 we discussed the idea that technology should be transparent, invisible, in the background supporting learning, rather than being the focus. Like a refrigerator – it does an important job, but we don’t focus on refrigerators when preparing dinner, we focus on the food. Since we don’t focus on the refrigerator, it is effectively invisible when cooking.

Digital technology, however, is not. While we really want it to be, we have to spend a fair bit of and energy getting the applications to do what we want, making sure the students know how to use them properly (and actually use them…), and adjusting our methods to fit the paradigm of the software. All of this prevents the software (educational and otherwise) from becoming invisible.

I spend a good deal of time checking out educational apps and software, hoping for new tools that can support my classroom without getting in the way. Most often I find parts of of each of them to be quite desirable, and then other parts that make it almost useless (think smartphone apps for marking MC quizzes, but don’t give any feedback to the students).

Evernote is one application that does an awful lot, and is very flexible for recording observations, note-taking, tracking progress, and really anything else you want to make note of. And it’s shareable. Google Apps is on it’s way, but not there yet (but if Evernote could save to Google Drive, now that would be something!). But I’m having trouble thinking of other software that might fit into this category.

Most Educational software requires us to deliver in a certain way, or assess in a certain way. What we really need in EdTech is more invisible refrigerators.

Desmos is another great math tool

Yesterday I wrote about g(Math), a tool for adding formulas and graphs into Google docs, like an equation editor on steroids. Today I’m going to talk about Desmos, a full-featured, web-based standalone graphing calculator.

Desmos can be run from the website, or installed as an app in Chrome. You don’t need an account to use it, but if you create an account you can save your work – even saving a copy to Google Drive, which is nice. The interface is clean, with the list of functions down the left side, and a large central grid (which can be switched between Cartesian and polar) to display functions. It responds well to double touch, so using it on an interactive whiteboard is easy.

There are many, many saved examples on the Desmos site which highlight it’s capabilities – including animation and drawing pictures with multiple equations.

I’ve started using it to illustrate the parabolic functions of acceleration, finding the roots, intersection of functions (solving two equations and two unknowns), and illustrating standing waves and beat frequency. I’ve just scratched the surface – there is a lot more that can be done with it, I just need to find the time to figure out what all else it can do. But for teaching transformations of functions? Just throw in a function with sliders and watch what happens. It is a very user-friendly interactive tool.

It’s teacher friendly, student friendly, works beautifully on the interactive white board, it runs animations, and it’s fun. What’s not to like?


g(Math) is a great addition to Docs and Sheets

Many schools use Google Drive with Docs, Sheets, Presentations, and any number of other plugins. But in Math and Science, there are a number of shortcomings. Hand drawn diagrams and equations are not easy to insert, and up until recently, the equation editor was quite limited.

But with g(Math), you have the full power of LaTex equation formatting at your disposal, and can generate complex formulas including vector arrows, matrices, and pretty much anything you might want. There is a bit of a learning curve for anyone not familiar with LaTeX syntax, but there is a large set of tools that can be used to generate a template which can be modified as necessary. With practice, anyone who is at all familiar with markup languages (such as html) will figure it out pretty quickly.


In addition to equations, you can also use g(Math) to generate graphs of functions that can be inserted into a document, which is very handy when generating Physics notes for class. gmath1

In Sheets, g(Math) lets you insert equations and graphs into cells, but also gives you some options for stats, and a nifty feature that will generate a form using the equation and graph images inserted into cells – a nifty feature for creating quizzes.


This is a great addition to GAFE, particularly for math and science. It would be nice to see it included with Presentation too, but until then one can always cut and paste.

Now we just need to work on getting digital ink into Google docs…


Making a flipped class video

I have experimented with a number of formats for making videos for blended or flipped classes, and I have settled on a style that seems to work well in terms of ease of creation and student engagement.

Allow me to explain here:


Don’t accept corrupted files

With greater reliance on technology for student work, we run into the possibility that there can be technology issues with student work – connection problems, version issues, lack of access, etc. Though as the technology, and availability thereof, increases, these issues seem to be declining.

But there is one issue that seems to be on the increase, and that is students having problems with files becoming corrupted and inaccessible. As supportive educators, we don’t want to be punitive if there are legitimate issues. But having been around the sun a few times, I know a statistical rat when I smell one.

As computers become faster, storage is ubiquitous, and there is less and less saving to removable media the opportunity for files to become corrupted by accident is declining. It can still happen, if for example a flash drive is removed while a file is being copied or saved, or the computer crashes while a file is being saved, but since saving a file is so fast, the chances of this are very, very slim. So what’s going on?

Mainly, this: There are plenty of sites, and YouTube videos, and how-to’s about corrupting your own files so they can’t be opened. Then it is just a matter of acting surprised, and bingo! The teacher asks you to please re-do the work as quickly as possible, giving you extra time to complete the work.

Well, I’m on to them, and now so are you.

So let’s look at a few ways files can be corrupted, and how to recognize a corrupted file, and how to tell the contents of the file (I am a PC user, not a mac user, so I will focus on what I know, but I’m sure if you are a mac user you can find someone who can help you out similarly).

1. Changing the file type. This one is dead easy, but also very easy to detect. The idea is to take a file – such as an image or a video file, or an exe or whatever you have around, and simply change the extension to .docx or .pptx instead of .jpg or whatever it was. Since most users don’t even have the file extensions visible, this one is fairly effective. The application just chokes, and is unable to “repair” the file. The solution? Open the file with notepad. You can just open notepad and drag and drop the file in. While most of it will look like gobbledygook, there will be clues, mainly in the first line, where you may see something like “PK    »¬fB” or “JFIF” or some other clue. A quick Google search may help you identify the file type – PK is a zip file (or an Office document – since office docs are a collection of information files saved together as a zip), JFIF is a jpg image, and so on. Try changing the file extension and opening in another application. Other clues lie elsewhere in the file – Word documents may end with a sequence like:

“word/numbering.xmlPK-    ! ÷ÝJÆ¿ Q  °Z word/people.xmlPK-    ! ©Ó¢Ùñ ‰  œ\ customXml/item1.xmlPK-    ! —IqE   æ` word/fontTable.xmlPK-    ! õøÍ ¾  [c word/commentsExtended.xmlPK-    ! $ï¶D ÿ  _e word/webSettings.xmlPK-    ! ¶Ëëš\ ˜  ¤f docProps/core.xmlPK   — 7i”

Which clearly identifies it as a word doc. So if you get something purporting to be a “corrupted” word doc, and it has none of these, then it is likely not actually a word doc.

Powerpoints also have clues, like: “ppt/slides/_rels/slide9.xml.rels¬MKÄ0†ï‚ÿ!Ìݤ-“‹lº<Éú†dš›2Y±ÿÞˆ—-“. If there is nothing like this, then it probably isn’t a powerpoint.

2. Corrupting the header. It is easy enough to delete a few characters from the start of a file (using Notepad as above, for example), which will render it completely unusable. However, if you can go into the file in notepad as above, you should be able to see if it is the right type of file. If the internal clues are still there but that first line with the file info is missing, it probably had that info deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to recover a file corrupted in this way. But I’m working on it…

3. Online tools. Yes, there are tools online specifically to mess up your files so they data cannot be retrieved. A hallmark of these tools is that they overcorrupt, so the file is comletely unrecognisable. Compare the screenshots below of a powerpoint file and the resulting corrupted file:





Though hard to prove, but there is no way for an office document or powerpoint to wind up looking like that by accident.

So, with this information,  what do we do?

Firstly, there are proactive strategies such as having students submit drafts regularly, and requiring students to make backups. Also, you can have students use tools such as Google Drive – where the back end file is inaccessible and all changes are tracked –  in order to minimize the risk of file corruption (intentional or otherwise).

Secondly, arm yourself with knowledge of what tricks people may be up to. If you suspect a file has been tampered with, drop it into notepad and have a look, or bring it (and a copy of this post) to your IT department and have them look at it.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, keep the lines of communication open, and let students know that legitimate reasons for a delayed submission are open for discussion, so that maybe they will never feel like they have to resort to this.


A little Google docs win – almost

Today I played the Deer Game with my grade nines to illustrate population dynamics, limiting factors and carrying capacity. We usually iterate a dozen or so times, counting and recording the dear population on each turn, and then enter the results on a spreadsheet and graph it when we get back to the classroom.

Well, this year I did something a little different. I created a Google sheet, and created a chart based on a set of (presently empty) cells. I left this display up in the classroom when we went outside. During the game, I recorded the results each round on my phone, in the same spreadsheet. So when we wrapped up and went back to class the graph was already waiting for us on the screen. As a bonus, we ran this activity with two classes combined, and both classes could see the same data.

This was a great little timesaver, and I would rave about it, except for one little thing – scatter plots. The scatter plots in Google sheets do not show connecting lines or curves, just the scatter points. For this activity a line graph is sufficient, because we are iterating equal intervals, but uncovering a glaring hole in the capabilities of Google sheets slightly tarnished my esteem for this set of tools.

How do you spell conundrum?

Previously I have written about how textbooks get it backwards, authenticity, using challenge, and all kinds of posts on pedagogy, ed tech, and “21st Century learning” (a phrase I am growing tired of, because we are well into the 2nd decade of the century…). I have also written about various challenges dealing with recent cohorts of students, and how the trend for general disengagement from learning in even a progressive classroom seems to be on the rise. It really is time for wholesale change.

I have experimented with flipping my classroom, with mixed success. While many students appreciate it, I still have students who just don’t do the preparation, and so they are unable to participate meaningfully in the activities that are based on the videos. So my plan is to build a hybrid/blended course with all of the content laid out online, so that all students can stay caught up, even if they are away at sports, or ill, or I am absent.  Here is what I am thinking:

  1. Build the course online, in Google sites, with plenty of embeded videos (mine and others) and interactives, questionnaires, wiki components etc.
  2. Make use of Google groups and/or Google+ for asynchronous discussion, backchannel, etc.
  3. Have students do ALL their classwork in  drive, shared with me, so that I can access and comment at any time.

 Now, the items above are not really new. Others have been doing things like this for years, and I have used pieces of it myself, just not integrated them all, whole-hog. But here’s what else I would like to do:

  1. Incorporate the concept of 20% time.

I spoke with some of my students the other day about the idea of spending every Friday class (we have classes every other day, so we have Friday classes every other work. But it is still one class in five) on a project of their choosing. While intrigued with the idea, they suggested that it would be difficult to implement meaningfully, because, as they put it, “We’d just play Tetris”. So I thought about it some more, and hat the following train of thought. In order to implement 20% time, I need to streamline the efficiency of the course, so we can address the essentials in 20% less time. Fine. So, what would happen if I were to streamline the course, and use the Friday classes not for projects, but for homework? If content delivery can be compressed enough for 20% time, it could certainly be compressed so that there is no need for homework. So what about the 20% time? Well, what if students were required to spend, say, one hour a week outside school time working on a project of their choosing, but with no other required homework? In other words,

  1. Flipped 20% time.  

This, I think, might work. With students journalling their progress there would be accountability, and ideally it should be something that is meaningful enough to them that there would be intrinsic engagement.

Now, here is the conundrum part. In order to pull this off, I have to compress a course that, historically, has typically been rushed as it is down into 80% or less of it’s former time allotment. Looking where the time goes now, I can see that  some time is spent in delivering factual content, some in what to do with that factual content, and some in providing context for both. So where to trim the budget?

In terms of factual content, whether I give it to them, or they look it up themselves, time is required. In grades 9 and 10 the curriculum is particularly fact heavy. I can carefully trim the list of things they absolutely have to know, but it is hard to trim the time significantly. As for the doing part – if anything I would like to increase the amount of time on using the knowledge learned, so not much room for cutting there. So that leaves time spent contextualizing, and the heart of the conundrum.

We know as educators that lists of facts just don’t stick. They are meaningless words. New knowledge requires meaningful context for it to be effectively retained, and that requires providing students with both context in which to place the knowledge, and context for the students to relate to. My informal, subjective observations seem to indicate that it is this contextualizing that takes up a significant portion of the time, and so this is the only thing that can be trimmed significantly. And yet, it is arguably the most important use of time. So what to do? How about something like

  1. Layered context

If the course material is provided online, as opposed to in a textbook, it can be presented with basic context, but with links to additional background information, examples, videos, diagrams, applications and so on, so that those students who need the extra context have ready access to a veritable buffet of all the information they need, while those who get it quickly do not have to slog through unnecessary material. And if those who need more context are able to turn to those who “get it” for help, so much the better.

I still have a lot to wrap my brain around, and I would love to hear from anyone who has tried (successfully or otherwise) to implement any of this.

Looking ahead

Last week I attended the ECOO (educational Computing Organization of Ontario) conference, titled “Learning in the Now Century”. It was a wonderful event – I have lots of new tools I am eager to try out, and lots and LOTS of information I am still trying to parse.

One of the themes that carried through the keynotes, and echoed by many of the presentations, is the level of technology and the pace of change. During the panel discussion, Jaime Casap of Google pointed out that “the worst technology today’s students will ever know is the iPad 1. It’s their Commodore 64″. And look how far we have advanced in the last two years.

We are only just into the second decade of the 21st century. Look how far we have come in a decade. Now can anyone predict, with any kind of certainty, what we will have available to us in the next decade? Because that’s what today’s kindergarteners will be using in high school, and today’s high schoolers will be using in the workforce.

One of the points John Seely Brown made during his talk was that context is becoming at least as important as content, and probably more so. I think I need to really wrap my brain around that. In my subject area there is a lot of content – that is, there is a lot of factual information that must be leveraged in order to answer questions and solve problems. The question for me, I think, is how much, and what, of that information is actually necessary to know, and how much need only be findable? And how much of the takeaway from a course should be content, and how much context? And how can we best achieve the goal of preparing our students for a world we can’t predict?

Of course, I don’t have any answers to these questions. I just think they need to be repeated out loud.

You can watch Nora Young’s keynote address here:

and John Seely Brown’s here:


Don’t impose yesterday’s standards on tomorrow’s children.

Do you ever get those moments when something pops into your head that is just so intuitively obvious you wonder why you never considered it before?

I was thinking about the generational differences between students – that is, how students and learning today differ from when I was growing up, and how it differed for my generation from my parents’, and so on. I was thinking about this because once again I was chatting with a parent who was of the opinion that “what was good for me in school should be good for my kids”.

I started thinking about the differences between today’s students and students from when I was growing up, namely ready access to information, an expectation of instant answers, and easily available on-demand stimulation in the form of videos, movies and video games. And all of this is accepted as perfectly normal. And then I thought about why these wonders are readily available to today’s sudents, and I realized, duh, it’s because we gave it to them.

So now we have people from my generation suggesting today’s students should learn like they did, because it was good enough for them. We should take away their digital stimulants and cheating lookup tools and make them sit down and learn from books. But it was us, my generation, that gave them those tools. So really, how dare we. How dare we provide these wonders and then yank them away and insist they not be used.

It is valid to argue that students should know how to work without them. Students should know how best to tackle the world with whatever tools they have at hand. Personally, I think everyone should know wilderness survival skills too, but that doesn’t mean students should be deprived of all tools all the time. After all, when do we work without them? Think about it – we work with far more technology now than we ever had at our disposal three decades ago. Today’s students will have tools in five years that we can’t even dream of. So to suggest that students need to always function without digital tools because “they won’t always have them” is absurd.

How about instead we teach them how to use those tools properly. Or better yet, stop imposing our outdated opinions of how a completely new generation should learn, and let them learn how they learn best.


Real EdTech, Part Deux

Yesterday I posted about using portable everyday technology to do simple but spectacular things.

But wait, there’s more!

One of my students was with me in the library two days ago when I posted the microscope video on YouTube. Not only did he subscribe to my channel and post a question about what he was seeing in the video, he also told his friends about it. So when we did the activity in class the following day, almost everyone brought smart phones and wanted me to show them how to do microscope videography.

How cool is that?!