The Press Release

I was recently interviewed on The Press Release podcast with David Hotler. I found it in interesting chat with him and we covered quite a range of topics so I thought I would just share the episode here as well.

Whenever I get interviewed I generally prefer not to know the questions in advance, and this was no exception. I find the conversation flows much better when I have no idea where its going. David asked some good questions that led into, hopefully, an interesting discussion.   I guess you can be the judge of that!

You can subscribe to The Press Release directly on their website. There are a ton of interesting episodes there!

Thanks for having me David!

Redesigning Learning Tasks: Part 1

In these next few posts, I’m going to try and describe some of the projects we’ve been doing at school lately.  My role at PLC Sydney is ICT Integrator, and I very much see it as a role where I support, advise and consult with our classroom teachers about ways to enrich their lessons with technology. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes, since it often forces me to cross that line between giving advice on how to use the technology and giving advice on how to teach. The nature of digital technology makes it a really good fit with the general principles of quality teaching practice… and sometimes that fit is so good that I find it difficult to suggest ways to use technology without also suggesting that the underlying pedagogy should shift to match it.  Fortunately, I work in a school where most of our teaching staff are willing to take such suggestions on board, be it simply just regarding the use of technology, or to actually shift they way they approach the job of teaching.

Our Year 9 Geography class work on a project each year about natural hazards (bushfires, floods, earthquakes, etc). Over the last few years the students have been given a task that requires them to do “research” on one of these phenomena and “create a PowerPoint” about it.  I tend to put those terms into quote marks because I find that “research tasks” presented “in Powerpoint” are usually just a formal excuse to get kids to plagiarise (especially when they just hand the PowerPoint file in… they don’t actually present it to the class). When I looked at the task as it stood I was struck by the fact that most of the questions being asked could easily be answered by simply going to Wikipedia and doing a cut and paste.

I tend to use Blooms Taxonomy as a means of getting a quick overview of the quality of the tasks we ask our students to do.  It’s not a perfect tool, but it’s nice and easy to apply and it gives a pretty good insight into the degree of higher level thinking that might be involved in a given task.  When I looked at the existing task I got the impression that it was made up of fairly low level recall skills.

As an ICT Integrator, one of the questions I always try to start with is “What can we get the students to actually MAKE?” If  the word “create” is at the top of the Blooms pyramid, then I reckon that starting with that question is a good way to begin pushing upwards into higher levels of thinking, since making things, by definition, is creating.  The term “doing research”, unless it is followed up with actually making something based on that research, rarely takes students much beyond simple cut and paste thinking.  To be fair, the other part of the task did involve creating in the sense that the students were “making a PowerPoint”, but it was really just a PowerPoint summary the “research”.  Is it any wonder our students tend to plagiarise when we give them tasks like this?

So when I got a request, as the ICT Integrator, to simply visit these classes to remind the kids “how to make a PowerPoint” I felt a little underwhelmed, and I tactfully tried to suggest that perhaps we needed to rethink what we were asking the kids to do, and to come up with something a little more challenging. That’s what I mean when I say I often have to cross the line between just offering ICT support to teachers versus helping them rethink their actual pedagogy.

Anyway, we did end up redesigning the task, and I think that in the end everyone agreed it was a better, more interesting task that made good use of ICT while also covering all the necessary learning outcomes.  The students were put into groups of three and their task was to produce a 3-5 minute audio news report about a natural hazard of their choice. (It wasn’t technically a podcast, since we didn’t wrap it in an RSS subscription enclosure, but the recording part was the same general idea as a podcast.)

I suggested that the three students should take on three different roles, each focusing on a different aspect of the natural disaster.  The first role was the newsreader, and her job was to announce and describe the key facts about the disaster – what it was, where it happened, and some information about the causes for it… the newsreader essentially set the scene and gave the background about this particular disaster.  The second role was that of on-the-scene reporter, and this person was responsible for giving the detailed information about the disaster – who was involved, describing what the scene looked like, how it was being handled by emergency crews and so on.  The reporter then conducted an interview with the student playing the third role, that of a victim.  The victim’s job was to talk about the human impact of the disaster, and how people were affected. They were to give an insight into the human cost of natural disasters.  Together, these three roles would cover all the important aspects of natural disasters.  I think it’s important to recognise that all of these aspects are outlined in the syllabus for this unit, and so doing it this way was not just a novelty but a way for students actually engage in the prescribed content in a more interesting, more engaging way.

Of course, in order to play these roles the students needed to write a script.  For this, we used GoogleDocs and I taught the students how to write collaboratively using the shared writing tools in GoogleDocs.  I should point out that our Year 9 and 10 students are now 1:1 and every student has their own laptop.  This is a fairly new thing for our school as the 1:1 program just started this year, so I wanted to ensure we build authentic technology skills into these tasks.  Most of the students had never used GoogleDocs before and had never seen the collaborative, shared writing function. I spent a lesson with each class teaching them how to share a document and work on it together, something that they picked up very quickly. That’s the thing about our alleged “Digital Natives”… they actually don’t know a lot of this stuff, but once shown, they tend to pick it up pretty quickly.  Once they got the hang of how it worked, they used GoogleDocs as a shared writing space to work on a script together.  It worked really well and the students worked in groups of three, all collaborating on the same document, adding, editing and creating together.  I think they found it a very valuable tool.

I also spent some time teaching the students the basics of recording sound using Audacity. Once they were shown the core skills of recording a track, then overlaying it with other tracks, music and sound effects, they were ready to get on with producing their radio news reports.  Again, it was a skill that most of them had never seen or used before, but after a half hour of training they were all quite proficient at it.

Of course, behind all of this the students DID have to do considerable research.  They needed to find out how bushfires spread, what causes cyclones, where droughts are most likely and so on.  It’s not that they don’t need to do research – they certainly do. It’s just that once they did the research the task required them to actually use that information to produce something else.  The focus was not on the research, but what could be done with the research. Importantly, they were given some room to be creative, admittedly within a reasonably scaffolded framework, but there was still room to be creative… it wasn’t all about just regurgitating the facts they had researched.  They needed to take those facts and understand, manipulate and create with them. They were given an opportunity to engage with a range of new technology tools they’d never used before, and ones that will hopefully be of use to them in the future. They were being asked to use the media production capabilities of their shiny new laptops to collaborate and make something original, and not just use it as a glorified typewriter.

As we designed the task, I also made sure it offered the teachers a chance to learn new skills as well. We are really pushing the use of Moodle at the moment, and although most of our teachers are very good at posting resources like Word and PDF documents, the activities part of Moodle is still quite underused. I insisted that the final products of the students – namely a text document with the script and an MP3 file with the finished recording – be submitted as an Assignment in Moodle.  There was initially some resistance to this idea, but it forced the teachers to engage with the assignment submission workflow that Moodle offers and exposed them to a number of Moodle features they were not aware of, like the gradebook and the ability to manage student results electronically.

Overall, I have to say the task was a great success.  The students seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to work in groups, to make good use of their laptops, to be able to inject a bit of their own personality into the final product.  They told me that they liked the opportunity to be a bit more creative and not just hand in yet another boring PowerPoint file or essay.  The teachers told me they were impressed with just how engaged the kids were during the task, and that the quality of the finished products was generally quite high.

I’ll put some more posts up in the next few days about some other projects we are working on at school, but at the heart of them I hope there is a common theme.  That is, I hope we are getting better at rethinking what we ask our students to produce so they can show us not only what they know, but what they can do with what they know.  I’d like to think that we’re working harder to build creativity, choice, authenticity, collaboration and engagement into what we ask of them.  I’m pleased to see their laptops being used in ways that leverage the things that digital technology can do, and not to just treat them as a fancy way to take class notes.

Can this task be improved in the future?  Sure, but it was a nice step up from the previous task. I’d like to think that the ICT in this case was there as the appropriate tool for supporting a richer learning task, and not just there for the sake of using computers.

Below is a playable sample from one of the groups.  I don’t know if it was the best one, since I haven’t actually had a chance to listen to them all, but I picked it more or less and random and thought it was pretty good.  I liked the way they used sound effects and mashups recorded from the TV – it shows that they made a special effort.  And I like the creative (and slightly humorous) way they introduce the story at the start of their bulletin.

Year 3's First Voicethreads

One of the real joys of my current job is that  I get to work with our younger students in the primary school.  Having only ever taught high school, the chance to work with the R-6 kids is just so refreshing.  They are so enthusiastic, so keen and so refreshingly honest.  I’ve had a great time this term working with all the Junior School kids, but in particular I enjoyed working with Year 3 on some digital storytelling projects, where I suggested to the Year 3 teachers that they try Voicethread as our storytelling tool of choice.  One quick demo and they were all excited by the possibilities.  (And so was I for that matter… although I’ve used Voicethread a lot for my own personal use, this was the first time I’ve had the chance to work with students to do something with it)

The kids were especially excited by the idea of getting some real feedback from real people in other parts of the world.  If you get a chance, please pop in and leave them a message. You will need to sign in with a Voicethread account in order to leave a message but I’m sure many readers of this blog will already have one, and if you don’t you should!  If you could get your own students to leave them some feedback too, that would be awesome!

You can find the kids’ work at

Note that comment moderation is enabled, so your comments may not show up right away, but please leave them anyway.  At the time of writing, they are still finishing them off so there are still a couple more to come yet, but your comments would still be very welcome, and a great motivator I’m sure!

Our school signed up for ed.voicethread, the new education service provided by VT, which is good although I have to say I’ve found it a little confusing to manage.  However, we seem to have gotten the kids’ work online without too much trouble and the students have really enjoyed the task.  Voicethread is an amazing tool, so simple to use, yet so powerful in what can be done with it.  As an entry point into digital storytelling and podcasting (which is sort of what it is) it is a really excellent tool.

We were particularly focused on ensuring that all our images came from non-copyrighted sources, and the kids got really good at searching through Creative Commons photos using either FlickrCC, Flickr Storm or CC Search.  It was great to see these 7 and 8 year olds showing respect for intellectual property online and only using CC licensed photos.

In hindsight, I think I’d scaffold the work a little more next time, as the task was fairly sophisticated for Year 3 students.  Although I prelinked the various National Park websites and linked to Google Maps’ satellite images of the parks on our Year 3 Moodle page so they could just go directly to some of the more relevant sources, most of the websites were written in fairly adult language.  Despite that, I think they still did a good job of answering the following questions in their Voicethread…

  • What type of park is it?
  • What is it protecting?
  • Description including location… Where it is?
  • About the Park? Things to do and special features?
  • Interesting facts about your National Park… History? Aboriginal perspective? Tourism?
  • Why do you think this area should be a National Park?
  • Come up with some specific rules for conservation in your National park.

All in all I think they did a great job, and I’m very proud of them!  You go girls!

The Power of Podcasts

I never realised I was such an auditory learner until I became a podcast junkie. Now I listen to oodles of podcasts on all sorts of topics. My drive to work is a little longer at the new school this year and I’m rather pleased about that since I get to listen to more podcasts!

Ever since starting my own podcast, The Virtual Staffroom, over a year ago I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to chat with other educators about school, learning and whatever else came up. Initially, the motivation for making the podcast was just to figure out how it was done, and I’ve been lucky to have had so many wonderful teachers offering to join me online for a Skype chat, which then ends up as a podcast.

This week, in somewhat of a role reversal for me, I was invited to be on the interviewee’s side of the mic for a change. I had the great pleasure of being a guest on the Ed Tech Crew Podcast this week, where Darrell and Tony had a chat to me about a bunch of things, but mainly interactive whiteboards. They heard I’d been writing a book on the topic and wanted to have a chat about it. These guys asked some really good questions about IWBs, and I enjoyed the opportunity to have a chat about how I see IWB’s impacting upon education. You can check the podcast episode out here if you’d like.  I’ve also been a guest on Jeff Utecht’s Shanghai -based On Deck podcast a few times, where he and Dave chat about educational technology issues as well, specifically centering it around the South East Asian area. And a few minutes ago I just had a Skype chat with Sharon Peters in Montreal who asked if I’d like to join her and the rest of the Women of Web 2 for a podcast in June.  We have quite a podcasting ecosystem going on here…

Podcasting is such an amazing medium. I actually live around the corner from the studios of a community radio station and I often wonder about their audience size, and how much expense and infrastructure must be required to broadcast to this audience. I’m sure the audience is relatively small and the overhead required to broadcast to them quite considerable. And yet, here in the podosphere, anyone can potentially broadcast to a much bigger global audience at virtually no cost. All it takes to be a podcaster is a basic computer, some audio recording software, an internet connection, and you can have essentially the same opportunity to broadcast your ideas to the world as any other fully licensed, commercial broadcasting entity.

Forget about technology side of podcasting for a moment and think about what effect it is having on the economics of commercial broadcasting. Sure, it’s not about to put the big name radio stations out of business just yet, but it has the potential to be a truly powerful alternative… this truly is The Long Tail in action, and you really have to wonder how the future of media will look as anyone who wants to have a voice can have one… easily, cheaply and effectively.

On the Power of Networks

I was doing some stuff on Voicethread this morning and spotted a Twitter from Alec Couros directing me to a very powerful use of Voicethread. Alec is a professor at the University of Saskatoon in Regina, Canada, and posed the question “What does your Network mean to you?” as a Voicethread and got a large number of responses from a wide range of educators. It’s very interesting to scan through the responses and see what a wide range of ideas can be held within a single Voicethread.

Take a look for yourself…

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My Grandmother's Country

Just wanted to share this Voicethread that some of my students did (there are still more kids to add their voices yet). In my Year 7 art class we were looking at the work of contemporary Australian aboriginal artist Sally Morgan, and the students had to examine a painting called My Grandmother’s Country. We had quite a long discussion about it in class and looked at some of the symbolism used in the painting. The students then had to write a response to the work.

In the past, this task is usually done purely as a text-only task… it gets discussed in class and they then do the writing at home. I thought I’d try using Voicethread instead, because it allowed them to access the artwork from home, to zoom in to see detail, and to hear me re-explain what they needed to do with it. (I know, I know, YOUR students never forget anything you tell them in class, but mine sometimes do).

They were a bit shy about leaving voice comments at first, so instead they wrote a written response as usual, but many said it was really useful being able to hear the task explained again from home. After they submitted the written task, which I thought they mostly did pretty well, I got them to record some of their responses as audio files which we uploaded to Voicethread along with their photo. This ability to upload audio to Voicethread instead of having to record it directly onto the page is a feature of a Voicethread Pro account, which is available to educators at no cost. I found it made it so much easier to collect the audio comments, especially since this class is not in a room with computers. I use my MacBook Pro to record their audio to QuickTime, convert it to MP3 using QuickTime Pro, snap a photo using Photobooth and then I do the uploading after class or whenever it’s convenient.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some of their observations so far… if you want to leave an encouraging (moderated) comment for them that would be wonderful…

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It will be interesting to see if the quality of their speaking and recording changes once they realise that they have an audience…

PS: Thanks to @nzchrissy via @alannahk for pointing me to the solution to embedding these Voicethreads into the blog like this. Nice!