Saturday, January 31, 2015

Flexible Learning Space: the Experimental Classroom

When I first started as Tech Facilitator at HKIS, the High School was doing some renovations which released a room that had been a computer lab. When I saw this space that had rows of electrical outlets on the floor, no fixed cabinetry and great lighting, I figured it could serve as an experimental classroom space, where I could try out different technologies before they were scaled up for the entire school.

The philosophy driving the space was that I wanted a room that was imminently flexible: with a mobile teaching space, movable desks and chairs, and extremely versatile surfaces.

My rationale was: if there was a defined 'front of the room', then the teacher would be there. Which means the students would naturally align themselves in front of the teacher, creating that "Sage on the Stage" arrangement. So the first thing I did was remove any evidence of a "front", by taking down the projector and board, and by making all the walls writable surfaces.

We looked at different products, but ended up using formica countertop material glued to plywood backing. There is also a spacer behind each board, leaving a little 'breather space' between the board and the wall. In the steamy season, the walls sweat and we felt that having the board mounted against the plaster walls would have been too fragile.

I installed folding tables and chairs, all mobile, in the room. My first intent was to make the policy that after each class, the room had to be returned to a 'neutral state' so incoming classes had no implied set-up, but teachers found that it was easier to rearrange the room if the tables and chairs were deployed, so the policy was suspended.

In order or provide for projection, I tried two different setups. The first was for a self-contained mobile projection platform. I started with an Ergotron Teachwell adjustable lecturn, mounted a flat surface and strapped a projector to it, added a USB document camera, and mounted an amp and speakers to the base. There were some issues in cabling: it would have been nice if some sort of docking station was available for the computers, but in the end each device had its own plug that had to be plugged in (projector, audio, document camera, power). The resulting product could be moved around the room, plugged into any floor outlet, adjusted for height, and projected onto the walls.

Overall, this experiment was not quite successful; the projector was far too sensitive to any motion on the stand (even typing on the computer), and the focal length meant that the user had to endlessly mess with keystone settings. Also, the reflected glare from the projector was hard to manage. After some time, this station was abandoned and disassembled.

The next (and eminently more successful) projection system was a portable SMART board with a short throw projector. I found a big screen TV mount (also made by Ergotron), and working with some engineers we built a mounting bracket that could hold a SMART board and also a projector while maintaining stability.

The signal was sent to the projector wirelessly from the computer using an Imation LINK device. This worked very well (better than Apple TV, in terms of signal stability) except that there was some small visible 'chop' while watching videos. The best feature was that kids could project their computer screens merely by passing around the USB dongle.

Connection to the SMART board was via a proprietary bluetooth link (since discontinued by SMART). The board had some issues with maintaining connectivity, but with practice, all users were able to troubleshoot when necessary, or else bypass with a Thunderbolt-VGA cable.

For audio, we mounted an amplifier and speaker system to the legs of the mobile board, which also added to the stability of the board. It took the audio feed from the Imation LINK device. If teachers chose to use the VGA cable, then they could either connect to the audio with a bluetooth device, or else use an audio cable backup.

When we switched to Macbook Airs (with no DVD drive), we also mounted a DVD/CD player on the legs of the portable board, and wired the audio to the speakers via a separate channel, so the amplifier could receive feed from the computer or the DVD player.

The teacher's workstation was also wireless. I used an Ergotron adjustable lectern and mounted a USB expansion hub. In the hub I plugged in a USB Document Camera, the dongle for the SMARTboard, and the dongle for the Imation LINK. Teachers connected to the audio track via a bluetooth audio hookup...the result was a truly wireless portable teaching station with only one USB plug to attach. If their computers were charged, the teachers did not even need to plug in the power cable, and could roll the workstation anywhere in the room and still maintain audio, video, projection and SMART connectivity.

Together, the portable SMART board and Mobile Teaching Station only needed one power plug on the SMART board to run the projector and amplifier. Other than that, they are a very versatile and mobile presentation platform pair...although in truth, most teachers tend to use the cable connection to the projector rather than the Imation LINK.

The classroom space took some time for teachers to start to want to use. The math department eventually became the prime users, being very excited about the multiple whiteboard spaces and as they are some of our most prolific SMART users, they found the SMARTboard very useful. Other classes used it and made extensive use of the mobile project surface...the board could be moved anywhere in the room and seating arrangements could be adjusted as needed.

All in all, a lot was learned about this space. I found that teachers were not as creative about manipulating the workspace as I hoped they would be, and eventually the board ended up residing at one end of the room with the teacher workdesk occupying the traditional 'front of the room' setting. However, the room does get used almost every period now, mostly by math teachers, but also for meetings with Admin and student groups. Maybe one of the best outcomes was that people who wanted to use the space had to learn to manage some basic troubleshooting, and this skill ended up spreading around the departments. 

One notable thing happened: when the school had to absorb the Language Department space for the SW Admin as we built our new campus, extensive renovations occurred to the entire wing. However, the Admin universally agreed to preserve the Experimental Classroom, as it served as such a versatile, useful and important learning space in the HS.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Broken image links

Apologies to all my millions of followers. The images in this blog were hosted on the servers of my old employer, HKIS. Since I no longer work there, all the image links were broken. I've been moving the photos over time, but some links may still be broken. If you find a broken one, just post a message and I'll track it down and fix it.

Or just check out my other blogs, and follow me there, if you wish: 

Professional blog with useful tech tips for teachers:
Personal blog with random thoughts of a more random mind:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Thinking about Design

As my friend Ania Zielinska has said...when you 'integrate' something, you may be 'disintegrating' it: in this case, meaning....infusing tech into the curriculum might lead to big pieces of it being owned by no one, and getting lost by the wayside.

That's what has happened with some components of tech learning at our school: in the mechanics and pedagogy of integrating 1:1 into the classrooms, we've lost programming, game design, etc. Courses we once taught, but now we don't have a department that 'owns' them so they (and the skills they endorse) aren't being reinforced or taught.

But now that everyone has a laptop and the teachers are settling into their groove, students are starting to look for these offerings again. So a month or so ago, I started making movements in the HS about creating a Tech Curriculum.

I wrote a plan for a range of Technology courses. I say "range" because it felt to me that things like Programming fell into one end of some sort of spectrum, while things like Robotics fell at the other end, and I wanted to offer a selection that would appeal to a wide variety of students.

I've recently grown to understand my instincts: Sylvia Martinez, who is a Maker proseletyzer, mentioned that Programming is the 'Rosetta Stone' for all other forms of technology use, while more applied technology use (like robotics and game design) are in the arena of "Physical Computing"... a form of 'design tech' where technology plays a crucial, but non-central, role in the process of designing something. So thanks to her for validating my instincts and giving me some terms to define those endpoints. But most important to me was that term "design tech" as referring to a project where technology was necessary for success, and also the term "design cycle" which is a crucial part of the process...where you create, test, modify and improve in a cyclical, reiterative cycle.

In my musings about the future of technology in schools, it grew on me that there would be a decreasing pool of schools who needed support and guidance in rolling out a 1:1 program, and an increasing pool if teachers who were empowered to find and leverage tech tools in their curricula. So the future role of ICT Facilitators like myself was going to change.

But how?

I'm now thinking that the tech facilitator role is going to become more and more responsible for finding powerful ways to teach those pieces of tech that are not being addressed in the mainstream classrooms....things like Programming, spreadsheet use, data gathering and analysis, etc. Certainly some aspects of that are addressed in some classes (data analysis in science, for example), but not at a very high level and not at the expense of the science curriculum.

And 'design tech' courses like Robotics might be just the type of experience that will do the trick. Courses that put the kids into situations where they need to learn programming or coding to achieve success are powerful motivators, so I want to better understand this 'design cycle' and how it works.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Far Behind

OK, it's time for my annual "Wow, so much has happened since I last posted" post.

My last series of posts were geared towards recovering from Google canceling Reader, and trying to get the designers of Feedly to install some functions that Reader had...specifically the ability to subscribe to a post with a single button, and the ability to bundle a group of feeds together and share them easily.

The results were mixed: they DID create the first's now very simple to subscribe to a blog and put that subscription into a folder with a single button, and I'd like to think that my communication with them had a role in this, but I'm not really sure.

Especially because there seems to have been very little motion in the second arena; there is still no 'bundling' function in Feedly, and that seriously is impacting how I can use Feedly to monitor my student blogs.

HOWEVER, something else happened in the meantime along this front.

In his blog, an associate (I use that term very loosely...he probably doesn't really know me from Adam) Jeff Utecht posted about the upside of Reader going away. I stated in his comments about my hopes that they replicate the bundling functionality, and talked about my conversations with Arthur via this blog. My comment was read by Wes Fryer, a high-profile blogger in Educational Technologies, and he reposted my blog post as a model for what support for blogging in HS should look like,

Suddenly, the number of hits on this blog skyrocketed! Instead of the 20-30 views a month that it usually gets, I started getting 1000+ hits per day! Woo HOO.

However, that generated something unusual. Up until that day, the purpose of this blog was to serve as an historical record for other schools who are moving to a 1:1 environment. I wanted to archive our experiences and learning curve so others could benefit from them. What it was NOT was a soapbox where I could post my ideas on the future trends in Ed Tech, or give my points of view on diverse topics. There are already plenty of blogs like that out there, and I'm not entirely sure what purpose they serve.

As a result, the spike in readership didn't last all that long. After a few months, the number of hits has gone down to a more reasonable level (I really don't think I have enough to say to keep five or six thousand people interested), and the 'performance anxiety' that this created has subsided.

So anyway....that explains why I haven't posted in awhile. Keep watching over the next week or so and I'll catch up on our Year 4 rollover, and my ideas on the Future of Ed Tech (lol....seriously). I also will share some thoughts on my upcoming Gap Year....stay tuned. :-)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Followup with Feedly

Juat had a great chat with Arthur from Feedly, and shared my 'needs list' with him. I am hopeful that they will design something to fill this unique gap that Reader is leaving abandoned.

Here is the gist of what I told him;


I need 'bundles' where I can subscribe to a group of blogs, put them in a single folder, then share that folder. Currently, Reader does it this way:

---When you find a blog you want to subscribe to, click on the 'subscribe' button you previously uploaded to your toolbar

--Which then opens the Reader window and asks you if you want to subscribe to the blog:

---After you hit 'Subscribe', it places it in your blog list. From there, you select the dropdown and go to 'rename subscription':

---And then, after THAT, you can go and drag the blog into a pre-existing folder.

Feedly's method is a bit different and simpler. First, you navigate to a blog you want, and copy the URL.  Then open Feedly, and find the 'Add Content' button. It's in different places for different views:

--but in any case, it opens this window, where you paste in the URL and it does a little search:

--Then you select the blog and select what category you want to add it to, as well as what title you want to give it.

I gotta admit, I like Feedly's method better, with one exception: it would be perfect if they had a toolbar icon like Reader does, rather than the 'cut and paste' method. Also, instead of having to go through that 'little search' thing, it just accepted your URL and had the option to rename the title and choose the category all at once. 

Now for the BUNDLES...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Switching to Feedly; so far, so good.

OK, the trigger has been pulled.

I emailed my entire HS faculty last week, and I'm emailing my students this week and officially telling them to login to Feedly to switch their Reader content over. If this is done before July 1 (when Reader goes away), then Feedly installs all your Reader subscriptions automatically.

Still unsure of what it will all look like after July 1: will we still login to and the DNS server will redirect us to Feedly? Will be have to login to Or will we login to and see the old Google interface, but populated with our Feedly subscriptions? I've emailed Arthur (the chief designer/co-founder of Feedly; see my previous post) for clarification, but if any of my millions of readers knows the answer, please pass it along.

I'm still sitting with fingers crossed that Arthur and the folks at Feedly create the ability to share collections online with 'bundles', but I'm overjoyed to see that at least one of my wish list items is already installed.

I told Arthur that a messy part of making folders in Reader was that downloading the RSS link, renaming the subscription, and adding it to a pre-existing folder were three separate steps. Feedly now has the option WHEN you are adding a source, you can rename it and assign it to an existing category (or create a new one) in one step. Wonderful! I'm not sure about that broken image link next to 'must read', but that's not a crucial to me as the simple process for installing new sources.

For those who are new at Feedly, here is a great Intro tutorial:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Heir Apparent...

Since the announcement of the dissolution of Google.Reader, there has been a ton of social chat about what to replace it with. Most posts and sites I have seen have identified Feedly as the most seamless heir; transferring your Reader subscriptions into Feedly is literally a one-button process, and although I don't understand the back end technology very well, apparently the two programs are highly compatible.

That being said, I did notice immediately that Feedly was missing a couple of features of Reader that I find absolutely essential for my use, so I took the bold step of sending a tweet to the CEO of Feedly, Edwin Khodabakchian:

Much to my pleasant surprise, the next day I noticed that he started following me on Twitter, then a day after that I got a tweet back from him:

So to shorten this lead-in....I contacted him and Edwin got me in touch with the co-founder and lead designer of Feedly, Arthur Bodolec, and wants me to give details of how we use Reader here at HKIS. With the sudden surge of users (3 million new users in the past few weeks), Feedly is rapidly modifying their site. But in reality, aggregators are aggregators, and a fancy skin or new coat of paint is not going to distinguish one from another; to really stand out, Feedly has to offer some functionality that no one else does. 

So this post today is for Arthur, but others who use it similarly (or who want to add to my post) are welcome to chime in.

So Hello, Arthur :-)

While the market is saturated with lots of aggregators, what Reader offers (and what no one else does) is two things; the ability to bundle blogs for organizing and sharing, and the ability to subscribe to a website, RSS feed, or whatnot, with one click.

Here is how I have our system set up:

Our school has about 800 students (200 per grade) and we are requiring all our freshmen to start a blog about their school experience, and maintain it over their 4 years here. Regardless of what program they choose to create their blog, they have to be organized in a manner that allows different populations to find and read them.  And this system has to be robust enough to support 200 additional blogs each year, organized by homeroom and accessible to users with all sorts of ability levels (ranging from highly skilled to terrified, and who are universally too busy to go far out of their way to troubleshoot). 

I have come up with a beautiful way to manage this, however, although it sounds pretty straightforward, the back end design work to set it up has taken a lot of troubleshooting and is completely reliant on some features of Reader.

What I have done is to create a space in each student's user profile in our Learning Management System (LMS) where they can put in their blog URL. Then, when the teachers go to their class list in their Homeroom page (or any class page, for that matter), they see the link that takes them to each student's blog, like this:

Clicking 'link' on the right opens the student's blog in its home URL. 

If the teacher isn't already subscribed to the student blog (maybe the student joined the school late), google has this great little goodie feature called the 'subscribe button'; it puts a button on your taskbar that you click when you are at a website, and the computer automatically opens your Reader account, and asks if you want to subscribe to that URL. 

The beauty of this button is twofold:
  1. It changes the experience of following feeds from one where you have to deliberately navigate to your aggregator, mentally changing gears from whatever you were doing before, into one where you just add feeds 'on the fly' as you do what you were doing.
  2. Since Reader is already activated in our Google Apps Suite, it takes people there who may not have known that they had a Reader page. That introduces them to RSS aggregators in an authentic manner.

Now, here is the most important feature of reader that no one else offers and I dearly hope Feedly replicates: Bundles.

To make it as easy as possible for teachers to subscribe to and follow their student's blogs, I have created bundles using Reader and posted them on our LMS, like this: 

A teacher could then subscribe to all of their homeroom blogs with one click: when they hit 'subscribe' at the bottom of their own bundle, it automatically imported the entire folder into google.reader, with the proper URLs, student names and sorted into a folder.

Without this 'bundling' feature, I cannot figure out a manageable way to get 64 homeroom teachers to create folders that allow them to follow their student blogs. The 'long way' is cumbersome; open the Class page, navigate to the class list where the kids' blogs are linked to their profiles, click on each blog one at a time, open it in a different window, copy the URL and and paste it into their own aggregator, then go back afterwards and put all the blogs into a single folder, renaming each one after the student who created it.

The beauty of google's 'subscribe' and 'bundle' function is that *I* can do all the heavy lifting: I open each kid's blog site and put them into a folder in my own Reader, rename the blog after the student, then I merely make a bundle and paste it into the LMS site. The teachers can subscribe to the kids' blogs with one click.

So, to summarize:
What I truly hope Feedly creates is a system where a user can do the following:
1) Subscribe to any type of URL without having to cut and paste into Feedly, but do it while navigating the web,
2) Put the subscriptions into a folder where the user has easy control over the name of the folder and renaming the subscription,
3) Create a single link to that folder that can be pasted elsewhere, which allows a DIFFERENT user to download the subscriptions with the same names and folder name into their OWN Feedly account.

There are, of course, some other features that would be nice, but these three (especially the last two) are so essential to how I manage these 800 blogs that without them, I don't have any idea how to do it.  Of course, I could just create a regular folder with all the links in it, but that loses the functionality of showing when there are new posts...since the kids post updates at their own pace, it's not reasonable for the teacher or other users to regularly navigate through all 15-20 blogs hoping to see a new post, hence all this has to be embedded in an aggregator site. 

Feedly; this is your opportunity to offer something that no one else does. And generate a huge audience of thankful teachers and tech facilitators  :-)