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Response: Tech Tools Can 'Facilitate Learning in Powerful Ways'

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What is your favorite web tool or app for helping students learn?


In Part One, Anna Bartosik,  Jared Covili, Sam Patterson, Anabel Gonzalez, Richard Byrne, and Russel Tarr contributed their answers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anna, Jared, and Sam on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today,  Kristina J. Doubet, Eric M. Carbaugh, Jules Csillag, Tahnja Wilson, Rajesh Kripalani, and Marsha Ratzel and Zachary Walker share their suggestions.

Response From Kristina J. Doubet & Eric M. Carbaugh

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. (@kjdoubet) and Eric M. Carbaugh, Ph.D. (@emc7x) teach in the College of Education's Middle, Secondary, and Math Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. They are faculty members for ASCD Professional Learning Services, co-authors of the Corwin book, The Differentiated Flipped Classroom: Practical Strategies for Digital Learning, and they work with teachers across the nation and abroad on the topics of curriculum, assessment, differentiation, and digital learning:

The true value of a web app or tool lies in how robustly it facilitates student learning - and if it does so more efficiently than do traditional "paper/pencil" methods.  While the glam and glitz of many apps are enticing, they merely serve as instructional "decoration" if they fail to facilitate learning in effective—even powerful—ways.  Padlet.com, a free (for now) site for educators, meets this "acid test" in several capacities.  Even the basic version allows teachers to both collect and curate/deliver information in a more efficient manner than those afforded by traditional classroom approaches. 

As a formative assessment tool, Padlet holds several advantages over paper/pencil modes - and even over other digital tools such as Kahoot or Plickers.  First, it invites open-ended responses, allowing students to post both their answers and the reasoning/explanations for these answers. In addition, Padlet allows students to drag documents, images, videos, etc. from their desktops/browsers into the Padlet so that other studentsand the teacher—can see the work they have accomplished. Teachers can provide immediate feedback on student posts, and as long as the page is left active, students can revisit feedback as needed. In this capacity, Padlet affords teachers a quick and nuanced view into the thinking of students on which they can make instructional decisions and provide timely and effective feedback to promote student learningthe ultimate goal of formative assessment.

Additionally, Padlet offers several display functions that can help drive classroom instruction.  The "grid" or "stream" view affords an organized and attractivealbeit randomdisplay of student responses.  The "free form" display, while a bit messier, allows the teacher to move students' questions and responses into like "groups," facilitating class discussion and exploration into patterns in students' posts.  As such, Padlet can provide a launching point for differentiated investigations or small group review.  As an added bonus, Padlet now offers teachers the option of "gatekeeping"that is, approving students' posts before revealing them.  Many teachers find this feature to be a helpful tool in guiding students toward crafting constructive and appropriate social media responses.

Padlet can also be used as a tool to deliver content to students.  Using the "Read Only" feature, teachers can create sites loaded with readings, videos, primary documents or images, etc. along with instructions for processing those resources.  If one version for the whole class won't do, the site can be "cloned" and altered to contain resources and tasks differentiated for readiness or interest.  Once these differentiated tasks are created, they can be easily assigned to students using customized web addresses (for access on student laptops) or QR codes (for access on tablets or phones).  And, unlike resources and tasks delivered via hard copy, teachers can quickly and easily update the contents of a Padlet any time adjustments are needed.

Collecting and responding to formative assessment is a hallmark of effective instruction in any classroom. Padlet offers teachers a seamless and efficient manner to accomplish these important goals, "upgrading" the opportunities to increase student learning experience beyond what is possible via traditional methods.

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Response From Jules Csillag

Jules Csillag (@julesteaches) is a licensed speech-language pathologist and adjunct professor who works in New York City. She is the author of Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve (Routledge, 2016):

Celebrity chef Alton Brown decries the use of "unitaskers" (kitchen tools that only perform one function), and I feel the same way about technology tools. Therefore, I'm going to cheat a little bit and pick one tool that has several tools embedded within it ("If I had a wish, I'd wish for more wishes!"). The maybe-unsurprising answer is the Google Apps for Education suite because the Google tools allow teachers and students to apply the best learning methods by inspiring different ways of learning and demonstrating learning. Plus, it's free!

Studies show that using formative assessments- assessments that you use to inform your instructions, but which are not part of a student's grades- encourages students to become aware of their current skills, and use this information to form self-directed learning goals. Other studies show that students who receive frequent formative assessments rated their classes more favorably than those who did not receive these "educational gifts" by a large effect size (Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, & Kulik 1991). Google Forms are the perfect tool to gather formative assessment data- several question types are available for your choosing, and the results are all easily viewed or shared with students. Students can even re-take these assessments to demonstrate their learning.

Quiz creation has another benefit for students. The Institute of Education Sciences found strong evidence for students to "pose and answer 'deep-level' questions on course material."  Therefore, students can create their own questions. To ensure deep levels of questioning, you can supply models in the Description text, or include an image with deep level question words (e.g. What if... Why... What is the evidence for...).

The same report states that students benefit from teachers "combin[ing] graphical presentations (e.g., graphs, figures) that illustrate key processes and procedures with verbal descriptions." Google Slides and Google Drawings are perfect for supporting verbal information with diverse visuals: infographics or posters can be used for persuasive reading and writing, summaries can be made with visuals and/or text, and timelines, charts, and graphs can be made with the support of Google Sheets.

Reciprocal Teaching is another evidence-based teaching tactic (Effect Size= 0.7, which is large), which requires students to act as the teacher in small reading groups. There are diverse ways of doing this, but all Google tools support collaboration, thus students can each take on a different roles in the writing process, like collaborating on a Google Doc (with comments and suggestions) or making a joint Google Slide presentation, all the while being in charge of one, specific area.

Learning also happens when students with Specific Learning Disabilities are supported: Dictation has been demonstrated to support students with writing difficulties, and Google has it built-in with Google Docs (Under "Tools", then Voice Typing"). According to one student of mine it's "better than Siri." Similarly, text-to-speech supports students with reading-based difficulty, such as dyslexia. While Google doesn't have a direct tool with this capability, but Google Chrome has several extensions that have that capability, including TextHelp, which has dual color highlighting to make following along easy.

Finally, though we don't tend to think of Youtube as a Google tool, it is! It can be used to support learners' background knowledge, to support reading fluency if the closed captioning is on, to support student choice, and even to assess understanding since you can embed videos into Google Forms.

So whatever your learning goal, Google likely has an app (or workaround) to support your learners, which is why I think Google tools are the best for helping students learn best.

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Response From Tahnja Wilson

Tahnja Wilson, senior manager for strategic design initiatives at EdPlus, is responsible for online orientation and first year success center initiatives at ASU Online. She holds a Master's degree in International Management from Thunderbird, a MBA from Arizona State University, and has worked in education for more than 15 years. "The views of the author are her own and do not reflect those of her employer":

I've had several different careers in my lifetimehealthcare executive, consultant, K-8 educator, university educator and university administrator—but my most memorable moments, however, have been as an educator.  The light bulb moment when a concept resonates with a student is powerful. I was sold on the concept of gaming during my time as a K-8 educator.  I asked my students how they wanted to learn and gaming won by far, so I taught myself how to code and began incorporating games into the classroom that taught my students how to think critically.  The students loved it and I found that the use of games in education accelerated the journey to understanding.

At Arizona State University we use the game Spent in two of our online classes, ASU 101, The ASU Experience, and Justice and Everyday Life. Spent challenges players to make housing, clothing, food and other budget decisions for one month on $1,000.  It is one thing to read about poverty; it is quite another to actually make decisions and survive.

The game resonated strongly with our online students:

"Playing "Spent" had an immense role in my everyday life routines. Money, in the game, stopped me from doing many things I take for granted. I thought I lived day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck, but now I know how fortunate I am compared to those in real poverty.

"Playing "Spent" was an eye opening experience. At the end, I had five dollars left to spend working as a waitress. It never really hit me how scary it is to be on your own with a low wage job because I have not had to do it yet."

Games are interactive, immersive and serve as a hook for students, connecting them to the curriculum.  A few of my favorites are Against All Odds, which explores concepts of refugee rights, political activism and social justice, The Walking Dead, which explores concepts of survival, satire, morality and ethics, and Molleindustria's McDonald's, which explores concepts of satire, sustainability, political activism, global economics and public relations.

For students, games are an emotionally and intellectually fun way to explore, interact and engage with their coursework. Although pre-existing games are nice, being able to build my own games EASILY and QUICKLY has always been high on my wish list. A new tool, still in beta, MuzzyLane Author, is an interactive activity-authoring tool that allows instructors to create custom content for students that is gradebook measurable. Thus far, I've created branching financial aid simulations, syllabus review activities, and foreign language interactives.  What I really like about this new technology is that I don't need to code to build these activities and that I can teach others to use this tool in an hour. 

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Response From Rajesh Kripalani

Rajesh Kripalani is a well-settled digital immigrant educator with twenty years experience in making the transition. He is currently an IB History and Theory of Knowledge (TOK) teacher who lives in Shanghai, China and curates online as iKrips:

My students are digital citizens born into technology, and I am, at best, a well-settled digital immigrant working in an environment that does not always have the wherewithal to support technology-rich learning experiences. As an IB History and Theory of Knowledge teacher, I assign tasks that require independent research and response often in the form of lengthy essays. Having worked with physical paper for the better part of my twenty-year teaching career, I switched to digital platforms a few years ago and have found the results exceptionally rewarding for my students as well as for me.

Much as I would love to use Google Classroom, we do not use it at our school. However, Google Drive has helped me take at least four-fifths of my course load online. Doctopus (a Google Sheets plugin) creates separate class, student and teacher folders, where assignments are posted automatically. My assignments are hyperdocs, or Google Docs with embedded interactive formative learning activities, that allow my students to arrive at their final essays in small steps. I embed links to YouTube videos, flipped learning tasks on EdPuzzle, mini-quizzes on Socrative to check for understanding, annotate difficult terms and communicate with students throughout the process using comments within the hyperdoc.

Culminating essays in my courses are assessed using criterion-based instruments. Goobric is a Doctopus plugin that helps me do this very effectively. (If you are into multiple-choice quizzes, look up Flubaroo.) It attaches my assessment instrument to student essays, and I simply click on the criteria that they have met, type text or voice comments to the document and that's it. What the student receives is an assignment leading to an essay that has the marking criteria, comments and a final mark attached at the bottom of the original document. Doctopus and Goobric generate a neat spreadsheet that contains links to student documents, marks earned and comments entered.

If you want to leverage technology with your digital native students in a low-tech environment, give Google Drive, Doctopus and Goobric a go. Together, they will keep your students engaged and on task, build on their (and your) technology skills, and save you a lot of time and paper.

And no dog will eat their homeworkever.

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Response From Marsha Ratzel

Marsha Ratzel is a middle school math and science teacher at Leawood Middle School in Leawood, Kan. She has been Nationally Board Certified in Science two times:

Using science simulation apps help students experiment with ideas and tinker until they figure out how they work.  My favorite app website is PhET  apps. One of the most effective ways to use this is to screencast a concept or vocabulary word.  Most of the time, I'll use these in a presentation on lab days.  I also work with helping them learn vocab words specific to the unit by embedding the video in a Google Slides presentation where I show how the concept works.  I include the simulation name so students can experiment with it themselves.  Whether using this as a class demo, students using the simulation in a guided inquiry experiment or watching a screencast of a vocab concept, PhET simulations is my favorite web tool.

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Response From Zachary Walker

Zachary Walker, Ph.D is the author of Teaching the Lastback Generation: A Mobile Handbook for Secondary Educators and is a certified K-12 Teacher.  He is a faculty member at the National Institute of Education, Singapore.  Zachary was named an Emerging Scholar by the Think College (2012), a Millennium Milestone Maker by the World Academy of Women (2015), and was awarded the John Cheung Award for the Innovative use of Social Media in Teaching and Learning (2015):

 Using Newsmap for Teaching Almost Anything

Newsmap is a versaitle website that can be used to teach almost anything.  The site was created in Japan- note the .jp instead of .com) and features the most popular headlines and news stories from around the web in real-time.  Every 15 minutes, Newsmap's system updates the biggest stories being reported around the world so users can literally see the biggest headlines at any given time.  If you click on the headline, you will have links to the major stories from around the world.  Each story is categorized by size so that the bigger the headline, the more instances that story is being followed at that very moment.  However, that is only the beginning of the visual stimulation.

Newsmap color codes the stories into World, National, Business, Technology, Entertainment, Sports, and Health.  Each theme has a different color for easy reference so students can identify the type of story it is quickly.  In addition, you can also choose from 15 different countries and read the most popular stories in those countries in the native languages!  Newsmap is a site that can be used for almost any subject matter.

Here are a few examples of how you can use it in some classes:

Language ArtsWriting Prompts:  Have the students pick any headline and write the "rest of the story".  We know how important choice is to motivation.  Allowing students to choose the headline they want to write about gives them freedom and, most importantly to us, gets them writing.

MathProportions or Fractions:  Use Newsmap to start a discussion about how to use visual proportions.  Since Newsmap also captures the analytics from prior weeks, we can ask simple questions such as "What is the percentage of stories being reported right now about Health?" or "Of the total stories reported right now, how many were popular last week?".

Social StudiesOpposing Viewpoints and Current Events:  Obviously, Newsmap is perfect for keeping up to date with current events but it can be use for so much more!  Students can analyze stories from different countries around the world and note which stories receive global attention versus which stories are more country specific.  There have been many times when stories that receive major attention in the U.S. receive very little interest in international media.  It is also interesting to note how many of the major U.S. stories come from Sports or Entertainment while many other countries follow more World stories.

ScienceThe Relevance of Science:  One activity science teachers can do is to have students analyze each headline and discuss any scientific principles that they have covered in class that may have contributed to that story.  This makes the content relevant for students and helps them to understand how what they are learning in their classroom has an impact around the world.  In addition, science teachers can also go to the Technology or Health themes and pull up multiple stories that students can tie back to content for discussion.

English or Foreign Language LearningStories in Native Languages:  One of the best things about Newsmap is the ability to read stories in native languages.  For English Language learners, you can have them read the story in their native language and write it in English.  Or you could have students learning Spanish pull up stories from Mexico and Spain to compare the nuanced differences in the Spanish spoken there.

In short, Newsmap is a great site because it allows our students to keep up with current events while also tying it back to multiple content areas.  We are only bound by our own creativity when using Newsmap for teaching and learning.

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Thanks to Jules, Kristina, Eric, Tahnga, Rajesh, Marsha and Zachary for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminderyou can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

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Education Policy Issues

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Science Instruction

Professional Development

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Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days...

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