Chrome Extensions in the Classroom

My well-documented technological woes are the bane of my existence as a teacher but I know how important it is to do my best to incorporate technology for the benefit of my students.  When I discover or “finally” master an app or a program, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment.  None of it comes easy for me.  It’s a good reminder of what education is like for many of my students.

This week we had a choice of activities and topics for our blog post, and though both were very tempting, I chose to explore some Chrome extensions.  Out of the list of twelve, six of them really interested me.  Here’s a bit of my exploration and insight in no particular order.

Grammarly is hands down one of the first extensions I can say I wish my students and colleagues used on a regular basis.  It helps with every single thing that the user types … emails, letters, essays, and other documents can be both spelled correctly and grammatically sound!  Glory hallelujah!  If more of my students and colleagues used this extension, my eye twitch would probably get a whole lot less pronounced.  I began using Grammarly a few years ago and I will admit that it has caught more than a few grammatical errors in my writing!  In our fast-paced world it is so very easy to make mistakes while we are typing and we often hit send before fully proof-reading our work.  Imagine sending a cover letter or resume to an employer that was full of spelling errors, or an email to your boss that starts “I seen you in the hallway but forgot to tell you about my terrible grammar.”  Grammarly definitely can help prevent the user from feeling foolish by pointing out the errors of our typing ways before we hit send!

Screencastify 

I used this for the first time last semester to produce a video and I really liked using it!  Screencastify is “mostly” intuitive, meaning I figured it out pretty much on my own (a huge adulting win for me!).  Though I didn’t figure out how to turn off the webcam capture on the video I made (oops!), I definitely saw the value in using Screencastify as a tool in the classroom!  I have since used this with a few of my classes as a way for them to create “presentations” without having to get up and speak in front of the class.  The students loved the freedom of creating an artifact in this manner and had fun recording themselves.  This semester I plan to use it as one of the ways students can provide evidence of their thought processes and to self-assess their work.  One area where I thought it might be useful is in assessing and analyzing their own work is to “talk me through” their assignment (a video of transmittal, if you like) and point out areas where they meet the specific criteria of the assignment (a thesis in an essay, for example).  I also have plans to use it as a way for students to create their own content to teach to the class in an upcoming pre-AP ELA 20 assignment!

Mercury Reader is something I also learned about last semester and have used a few times in the last nine months.  I absolutely LOVE that it takes away the ads and distractions from online content, leaving a beautiful clean copy to read or print.  When using a blog post or web-based article, Mercury Reader is absolutely the easiest and best way to get a version that is uncluttered for student use.  DF Tube is another extension I learned about last semester and have used it ever since to get rid of the distractions while playing youtube videos for my classes.  Please tell me I’m not the only educator that has had a perfectly harmless, appropriate video loaded and ready to show a class and on the side saw something that made me cringe, quickly block the screen from student view, and tried to recover while the class made hooting noises.  DF Tube can help prevent the from happening by taking away the distracting sidebar and leaving a clean screen for viewing.  I have found this one is useful at home with my twelve year old who likes to surf Youtube.  With DF Tube enabled, she has to manually search for videos – genius!

Make GIF is an extension I just learned about and I am going to try to hide this from our VP who likes to send daily memes … he might try to up his game to GIFs!     Though I do not have many uses for this extension in my ELA classroom, I can see where it would be valuable in other learning areas, such as Communications Media.  That being said, I can see where it might be fun to incorporate into ELA – for a character in a novel, students could find a video depicting the emotion or feeling they think the character is feeling and make a GIF!  Though I tried to use MakeGIF on both my home and work computer, I kept getting an error code when I tried to share the GIFs I created.  More playing is in order for this one.

Wakelet is an extension I was excited to learn about!  It allows for the saving and organizing of articles, videos, tweets, blog posts – just about anything on the web.     As I experimented with it this past week, I can already see the value – it is simple to save content and access it when and where I need to!  No more flash drive or using Office 365 to keep a document titled “Important Links for _________”.  This could really help students who are doing research papers or assignments – their resources could be saved in Wakelet for easy access.

So many of these extensions could be adapted for use in my planning, instruction, and assessment.   The planning and instruction portions seem to be easier for me to wrap my head around, but there are a few of the tools that do translate well into assessment (Screencastify).  The use of technology in the classroom is important for students – it is such an integral part of their daily lives and the more we teach them to use it with care and caution and with a specific purpose in mind, the better at it they will become.  With the prevalence of the internet in students’ lives, it is vitally important for educators to encourage meaningful and appropriate use – digital citizenship should be explicitly taught in the classroom.  Last semester in EC & I 832, we discussed this topic at length and the Screencastify video I linked earlier in this post was my views on what it means to be a digital citizen.

The following video describes the 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship:

Image result for digital citizenship

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A great resource for educators is Digitial Citizenship Education in Saskatchewan Schools.  This document can help educators to become more aware of the ways in which they should promote Digital Citizenship in schools as well as outlines Ribble’s Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship.  It was the first document I read in preparation for my major project in EC&I 832, which was a mini-unit I planned for ELA 20, which I link to in my reflection blog post.  Web safety should be priority for our students and in order for that to become reality, educators should be aware of and plan for meaningful lessons about how to use web tools safely and effectively.

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Making a Connection

Our blog challenge this week was to examine which theories of knowledge and learning underpin our teaching philosophy and classroom practice and to explore how those beliefs shifted or changed over the course of  our teaching career thus far.  In addition to the readings from Ertmer & Newby, Siemens, and Benjes-Small & Archer,  another trip down memory lane back to my high school days is in order.

Weyburn Comprehensive School Grad 1993

Awe, 1993… the year I graduated high school.  It was also the “birth” year the Internet, which was about as mind-boggling as the hair trends of the late 80s/early 90s.  I learned from educators who mostly followed a Cognitivist approach, in which “[l]earning is concerned not so much with what learners do but with what they know and how they come to acquire it” (Ertmer & Newby, p.51).  Memorization and retention of information was extremely important in most of my high school classes.  My penchant for memorization helped me excel in my humanities classes, but not so much in maths or sciences.  Because of my struggles with those courses, I was under the impression that there was something inherently wrong with my brain.  How could humanities be so easy while maths and sciences were such a tremendous struggle for me?  Then I had an Algebra teacher who could explain things a variety of ways and could find a way to make me connect to the content.  Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling dumb anymore.  In retrospect, that teacher likely employed more of a Constructive approach, where “[l]earners … build personal interpretations of the world based on individual experiences and interactions” (Ertmer & Newby, p.55).

I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher but I also knew that I needed to work for a while before I started University.  In the four years that followed my high school graduation I worked, became a mom, met the man who would become my husband, and built up some savings. When I started University in 1997, the world was a very different place than it had been when I was in high school.  People were buying cell phones (not smart phones yet!).  Advertisements on TV often had web addresses to drive traffic to the Internet.  Computers were in more homes and businesses.  I had to learn Windows 95 and then soon came Windows 98.  Trying to keep up with the ever-evolving technology was like learning a new game where the rules were constantly changing… or like Minesweeper, just waiting for an explosion!   It was overwhelming at times.  When I felt overwhelmed, I would call and talk with my  grandma and remember all the things that she had witnessed through her lifetime (which I talked about in my previous blog post) and then I would take a deep breath and dive back in.

My university profs took more of a Constructivist approach to learning as well but looking back I know that there were exceptions to that.  I remember an undergrad ELA class where we were analyzing literature and all of us were pulling our hair out trying to figure out how the professor would interpret the story – he was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.  This was a huge contrast to my high school ELA teachers, who gave us the freedom to connect literature to our own lives in addition to using the historical context of the literature we were studying.  Some of my experiences taught me how I did NOT want to act as a teacher and other experiences were truly amazing examples of how educators can empower students.  Based on those experiences, I would say I started my teaching career based on the Constructive approach.  Students are often wary when I tell them there is likely not a “correct” answer to literature analysis.  This is the impetus for our discussions about how we can construct meaning from literature based not only on historical clues and context, but on our own personal experiences.  Students must be connected on a personal level to be fully engaged in the curriculum so it has been my focus over my career to guide them towards those connections.

My tech woes and struggles utilizing instructional technology within my classroom are punchlines for my colleagues but those struggles have been both a hindrance and a help to my growth as an educator.  My students often teach me things about technology just as much if not more than I help them with their learning, and in that collaborative atmosphere we create a safe place to take risks in order to learn.

That safe space to take risks is absolutely the single most valuable thing in my classroom

Our students are constantly being bombarded with information and images.  Unlike when I was in elementary and high school, memorization is no longer a necessary skill when most people have information at their fingertips.  Instead, our students’ learning is more about how they make sense of new information and connect what they already know to the new information that they acquire.  Siemens notes that “[t]he ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital.”  Our kids need to have the cognitive tools to look at all of the stimuli around them, categorize it, and be able to interpret it in meaningful ways.  Essentially, they need critical thinking skills.  This is Connectivism, which is a type of Constructivism wherein the focus “is on creating cognitive tools which reflect the wisdom of the culture in which they are used as well as the insights and experiences of individuals.”  The principles of connectivism outlined in Siemens’ article that really resonate with me are that:

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
  • Decision-making is itself a learning process

Life long learning truly is necessary in our ever changing world.  Teaching students to respectfully disagree with others who have differing opinions, nurturing and maintaining connections, and practicing decision making will help them develop the critical thinking skills they need for life beyond our classroom walls.

 

Welcome to the (Technology) Jungle

Our task this week was to develop a contemporary definition of educational technology and describe how our understanding of ed tech has been shaped.  I would define ed tech as technology that is used to enhance or promote teaching and learning through a variety of tools and methods, varying in delivery.  As for how my understanding of ed tech has been shaped, that’s a bit more complicated.

My sweet grandma recently celebrated her 93rd birthday.  Some of my favourite conversations with her have been when she describes her schooling and education and how she came to be an adult in a world that was so fast changing.  She remembers riding a horse to school (she was one of the lucky ones – the rest of her friends walked).  Most of the kids didn’t go to school past grade 5 or 6, especially the young men, since they were needed to help their fathers work the farm.  She remembers rationing during WWII and how they were so excited to find a beehive on their farm – it meant they could have honey.  The first piece of educational technology she remembers is the slate.  Having books to read was a privilege.  She remembers the first radio her family got and how all the neighbours would come to their home to sit and listen to the programming.  The radio is the first piece of educational technology that influenced her learning in a significant way.  She was a farm girl from Saskatchewan and suddenly she was learning about people living in other areas of the world.  As she grew into adolescence and young adulthood, there were new and exciting programs and all sorts of music on the radio.  The day she and my grandpa got their first television set was an exciting day, indeed!  Again, their home became a gathering spot, as they were the first in their community to own one.  My grandma has never owned a computer or a smart phone and she has said that she feels like she has dodged a bullet not having to learn how to use or operate “those machines.”

By grandma’s standards, I guess you could say that I also have witnessed some astonishing changes in educational technology.  Today’s students are not the same as students from 1993, the year I graduated high school.  We were taught and subsequently learned using different methods than students in 2018.  The mid-90s is when the Internet became “a thing” that I needed to know about and its capabilities were definitely not what they are today.  My students do not know or remember a time before the Internet was readily available at the tip of their fingers.  It is well known that I am not the most technologically literate person – I have to work hard to understand and incorporate technology in my daily life.  How, then,  am I to help my students navigate the technology jungle?  I would venture to say that in my day, learning was a combination of knowledge retention and critical thinking skills.  Today’s learning is more about critical thinking and application skills.  I can definitely help students learn to think critically and analyze information using the educational technology tools available to us.

 

Who could have predicted that this would become portable with so much power?

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Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change” discusses key ideas that address some of the cautionary measures that should be addressed.  Yes, technology can be fantastic for teaching and for learning, but we must also approach it with an air of caution.  His first idea is that “culture always pays a price for technology.”  YES.  With the convenience of having our smart phones able to do so many things for us, what is being taken for granted?  Face to face communication!  People are forgetting how to communicate with others face to face or by phone.  How many people do you know who will go out of their way to avoid making a phone call?  My own daughter does this – if she can’t email or do it online, chances are she will avoid the task.   As educators, we can guide students to learn how to use these communication skills, we can practice them with the use of technology, and we can promote being social instead of solitary.

Postman’s second idea is that “there are always winners and losers in technological change.”  Think of my grandma.  She’s not interested in learning how to run a computer or a smartphone.  She definitely is not going to text us from her landline or get an email address at this stage in her life.  This requires us to call her or visit her in person, which is definitely NOT a bad thing.  But she is not the only one whom technology is keeping powerless.  Those who live in poverty and cannot afford smart phones or internet connections suffer as well.  Accessibility is often something my colleagues and I must address, as not all of our students are fortunate enough to have technology at their fingertips.

Postman’s third idea is “that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.”  In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.”

Sometimes I think that my resistance to technology is that I have seen firsthand that it can cause loneliness and isolation.  In an era where we have knowledge at our fingertips, retaining knowledge is less valuable than it used to be.  Indeed, wisdom seems to have vanished from some people completely.

Postman’s fourth idea is that “Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.”  His warning that we should be cautious of technological innovation is something that resonates with me.  Once a technology has been introduced, there is truly no going back.  We are stuck with the bad parts of it as well as the good parts.  As Postman mentioned, the creation of standardized testing has changed education dramatically.  It seems absolutely absurd that we would even use these tests with everything we know about the diverse abilities and ways that students learn, but they are still being widely used to categorize students and redefine curriculum.

Postman’s final idea that “media tend to become mythic” is a common conception of students.  Ask any teacher at a school and most of them will tell you that though “bring your own device” is great in theory, in reality it is a bit of a headache.  Students (and some parents) feel that it is their right to have their cell phone at all times and that they should be able to use it in whatever capacity they want simply because they own it.  Somewhere along the line they’ve lost track of the reality that they can certainly survive (and perhaps even thrive!) without having that piece of technology at their fingertips.  When I taught Media Studies, we did an experiment with students – we asked them to give up their cell phones for 24 hours.  The alternative to giving it up for 24 hours was giving it up for the school day – from 8:30am to 3:45pm.  Many students panicked.  We’re talking full blown hyperventilating, crying, and shaking.  I sent a letter home to parents to inform them of the experiment.  Parents also had mixed reactions.  Some were furious that I would ask their kids to do such a thing!  Some stated that it was a safety concern and their kids needed their cell phones so they could call in case of an emergency (insert eye roll – how did any of us survive before cell phones?).  Some parents thought it was such an awesome idea that they sent their own cell phones to school with their kids to be “locked up” overnight.  The experiment was a great way to remind students and their families that our reliance on technology to make us feel safe or complete is terrifying – indeed, it may even be dangerous for our health.

One thing is for sure … technology is ever-evolving and we must evolve with it to some extent.  My quest to find appropriate ways to use educational technology to enhance my teaching and students’ learning is ongoing.