Emerging Technology #4: What2Learn

Play this game on the what2learn site

I know that I blogged about a learning game website for my last post, but I came across this site while looking for ideas in teaching vocabulary and absolutely had a blast while playing here.  What2Learn is a website that allows the teacher to make much more interactive games for students.  For the one I made (see above) the students navigate through a maze in the first person perspective, trying to find computers to answer questions which I wrote.  Students can also fight zombies, collect cows, or save space monkeys, in addition to a number of other random but enticing scenarios. They are just the type of goofy games my high school students like, though I can adjust their difficulty with my own questions, so while they’re chasing clownfish through a reef, they can be answering questions about metaphors or characterization or even Dante’s Inferno, if I so choose.

But the best part of this website isn’t the fun games or that I can feel cool for having my questions in a game reminiscent of the old Doom games (sans the violence), it’s that my students sign in and play, and I can see their scores on every game.  A few minutes left in the computer lab?  Have them play and see where their deficiencies are in vocab and in fighting zombies.  It’s win-win.  We can find out if they are picking up the vocabulary and if we can rely on them during a zombie uprising.

There are 4 drawbacks I see in this site, however.

1. All of the games are multiple choice, fill in the blank, or hangman style.  It’s understandable considering the format of the games, but as an English teacher, I don’t rely too heavily on these in the classroom.  Then again, I do still have creative control over the types of answers and how difficult I make them.

2. All the games have time limits that cannot be adjusted.  Saves students from playing FOREVER, but doesn’t allow for students who just need a little more time.

3. You cannot adjust the number of questions.  My students had 20 vocabulary words, but I can only put 8 into the game above, so I had to pick and choose the ones I thought might be most difficult.

3. They cannot be played offline.

With those exceptions accepted, this site provides fun review games that I would post on my wiki beside the flipcards for their vocabulary (see last post).  It could also be fun for students to create their own games and post them on their wikipages or blogs (depending on which you use in your classroom).

Emerging Technology 3: ClassTools.net

Click here for full screen version

Classtools.net is a nifty little website I found at the beginning of this semester that allows educators to create flash games for students to use.  It includes 17 templates for work from, hundreds of examples, and even explanations of how each could be used effectively in the classroom.  You can create venn diagrams and have students move the characteristics into the appropriate spot, sort examples between categories with the Dustbin Game.  The Target Diagram can be used to take a key question or big idea and break it down into small parts for analysis.  Or, you can take information students should already know and create a review video game similar to the old arcade games of the 80’s and 90’s.  Need a little levity?  While students are looking for information, run the countdown tool so it plays the theme from “Mission Impossible” (2 mins, 30 secs)  or the “Pink Panther” theme (2 mins 28 secs).  Better yet, upload your own song and use it as a timer.

Fortunately, teachers aren’t the only ones doing the work here.  Students can fill out the templates as well to create action plans or outlines for papers.  After having students become experts on a topic and teach the class, why not have them create a review as well?

This website is great for teachers for several reasons.  First, if you think flash is just a brief, sudden burst of light, it’s okay.  You can still do this.  All you need to provide are questions and answers.  The input is as simple as copying and pasting into a big white box.  Second, you can retrieve the HTML code to embed your tool directly into your wiki or website, so students can access it without going anywhere else (a definite plus for those of us trying to get students to view the site as a tool to be utilized, not just something that fills up space on the syllabus).  And if this isn’t an option (or if you have no idea what I just said), you can download your flash game and play it off your hard drive.    And finally, it’s just plain fun.  The first time I played a timer, my kids laughed and danced their way around the room on their Portrait Walk. True, some kids may focus more on the game than on the material, but the way the games are set up, they have to learn it to be competitive.  (List high scores once and see what happens.)

There are some downsides.  First, the embed is not always pretty.  In fact, it doesn’t look as good on this blog as it does on my class wiki.  (Can you even see it up there?)  Second, the flash is actually saved to a third-party website, so while there won’t be advertisements, if the network is ever down (a common problem in my district), you can’t play the game if you haven’t downloaded it.   Additionally, I’m not sure if the problem was on my end or their end, but once in a while when I try to access the website, I can only actually load about half the pages.

Overall, ClassTools.net is a fun little tool that, used effectively, can supplement a lesson in the classroom or provide fun review for students outside the classroom.  I would not use it as a primary lesson tool and would definitely suggest keeping a backup plan in stock just in case things don’t go as planned.  But then again, I think that’s about par for the educational course.

Click here for full screen version

Emerging Technology 2: Google Docs

Although I have used Google Docs before for students who don’t have word processors at home, I recently used it in a completely new way in my classroom, inspired by the recent assignment for this class.  Generally, at the beginning of a unit, my classes do some exploration on the historical context of the upcoming novel, in this case To Kill a Mockingbird.  Unfortunately, this type of group project usually ends up with one or two people doing the research and typing it up, while the other group members secretly play a video game, hiding it when I walk by under the presumption that I didn’t see it and don’t know how to look at the toolbar or other tabs to see what they’re doing.  With this issue in mind, I decided it was time for Google Docs to become a tool (or weapon) in my arsenal.

Students found my assignment on my class wiki.  From here, they found their groups, the TKM Webquest, and my expectations.  It was also a way to get them to actually visit on their own and see the resources open to them, but I digress.  Instead of simply typing up their answers in a Word document, which only one person at a time can edit, they were told to start a Google doc and invite their group members to collaborate.  In this way, as I explained to them in the very beginning, everyone can work at the same time, they can oversee each other’s work, and, as an added bonus, I can view exactly who’s contributing and who is not.  As a portion of the presentation, students were required to create a visual element of their research, and many used Google Presentation (which I had never used before), putting certain students in charge of different elements of the project.  With the basic requirements explained, I told them to talk to each other to figure out their plan of action and get to work.

While the overall results were excellent (a student produced example it included), there were a few issues with this.

1. Difficulty in creating a Google account.  For some reason, this was the hardest part for many students.  During 1st period alone, half the groups could not create an account and sign in.  Because frustration was high and I didn’t want to lose the enthusiasm for the original project, I had to create the documents myself and send the links out to all my students (thank goodness I created an email list on the first day).  Unfortunately, this meant half the class was editing as a Guest, and everyone had access to all the documents. I had one incident where a student had opened up another group’s document and was making changes and deleting.  And, of course, it was one who was editing as a Guest.  Though I never found out who it was, I ended up closing that document and sending individual invites to only those group members.  If I had had more time in the beginning, I would have done this for all the groups, but I only had a few minutes before they started shutting down.

2. Apparently, the idea of collaborating on the same document at the same time is a difficult idea to grasp.  Two girls in my fourth period had difficulty wrapping their minds around the idea that what they type will appear on their neighbor’s screen and vice versa.  I explained that it was basically the same as if they were all writing on the same piece of paper at the same time.  One of them stared at me as if I had said the rabbit comes out of the hat by magic: same level of disbelief, even though she knew no better explanation.  In the end, their long suffering group members suggested they work on the presentation instead of the FAQ sheet.

3. The computers in our lab were really slow.  I know it’s not an issue with Google, who can handle billions of visits a day, but again, I was seeing a frustration with the technology.

Presentations were finished on Friday, and with the exception of one group, were quite excellent.  Nearly all the groups utilized the Google Presentations, and one student even announced that it was the coolest collaboration project she’d ever done because I was the only teacher who showed them how cool Google was. (I’ve paraphrased.  She used the word cool about 10 more times than I wrote it.)

For the last portion, students were required to do a Group Evaluation and Reflection online.  I created it in Google Forms (which I have used in my classroom before)  and embedded it into my wiki page.  Students are required to Submit it by midnight, Monday 3/1.  When I receive the results, I will update this post.

Module 4-2 Digital Literacy

The Internet-Connected Computer: It’s How You Use It That Counts

In this blog post on Edutopia, Jim Moulton expounds on the importance of using a computer for more than merely a word processor.  There are several ways for teachers who may not have experience with computers to find information to help them bring their classroom into the 21st century, including the use of websites geared toward education (specifically, Edutopia),  colleagues, magazines and professional journals, and especially students.

To help out any newbies (or even oldies, as some of these were new to me), Moulton included a list of some very useful sites.

National Geographic Xpeditions.  Black and white maps which are printable as completely blank or with greater detail.

The Newseum.  Provides access at “500 daily newspapers and close to 300 Sunday papers from around the world.”

National Library of Virtual Manipulatives. Provides visual manipulatives that can be manipulated with your mouse.  Excellent for math classes. (I spent some time playing on this one, and apparently can’t remember how to graph a slope of -2/6.  Good thing I teach English!)  Definately a site I will pass on to the math department at my school.

4Teachers.org Free online tools and resources, including rubrics, online quizzes, calendars, and fill in the blanks.  On the homepage, you’ll find a good list of additional resources, many of which I use and recommend (especially rubistar).

MarcoPolo. Sponsored by the Verizon Foundation, this site offers interactive content from its partner sites to be used in the classroom.

Gene Scene and the Genetic Science Learning Center. Ideas for hands-on activities that can be tried at home.  Just looking at the pages Gene Scene appears to be geared toward younger learners.

ePals Classroom Exchange.  Establishes email connections for classrooms.

Journey North.  I wasn’t quite sure what this was exactly from Moulton’s description, so I explored the page myself.  On this page, students log in to report observing certain species of animal.  The site then tracks migratory patterns, giving students a certain amount of ownership of the information gathered.

Global Schoolhouse.  Virtual meeting place where educators, students, and parents can interact.  Includes a number of projects classes can get involved with, collaborating with students from around the world.

Big Thinkers: Howard Gardner on Digital Youth

The Good Play Project deals with the ethical sense of young people who, according to Gardner, make a conscious decision to pass on ethics until they are rich.  Until then, they’ll do what it takes to make it to prosperity.  This project deals with 5 ethical issues: identity, privacy, trustworthiness, ownership/authorship, and credibility.

Because the digital world is a community of unknown size and combination with no real stated rules, it create a world in a vacuum, in which decisions are made based not on what is right and wrong in our own community, but allows young people to live without ethical or moral rules.  The outcomes, however, are not purely bad.  Youths can create numerous identities by which to be known, each with its own personality.  Are they deceiving the people around them when they do this?  Or are they merely confused about who they are?  This use of multiple identities can be positive in allowing students to explore a side of themselves that they do not, or can not, in their home or school settings, but it can also lead to deeper problems, such as those we often see in the news revolving around Myspace and Facebook.

As an educator, the amount of information and ease of access to that information is most daunting.  While the medium is not benevolent or malevolent, it is up to the user to decide whether or how it will be used.  Wikipedia is a popular information source on the Internet (and yes, I use it almost daily), but students need to be taught to look at the site itself and decide if it is credible.  Many educators tell their students simply not to use this site.  I, on the other hand, use it to teach my students how to decide if a site is credible.  We look at where the information came from and who is allowed to edit it.  Then, it is up to the student to decide whether or not it is a credible source to be used.  In this way, I’m not just telling them what they can and can’t use, but guiding them to make their own decisions based on the evidence, hopefully guiding them on a path in which they will begin to do it on their own during their personal research.  As educators, we cannot simply tell students yes and no.  We must create guidelines and teach students those guidelines and the whys behind them.  It’s the difference between handing them a poem and telling them it’s good or asking them what they see and if it’s good.

In the end, teachers are role-models.  We cannot simply tell the students what to do, but set up an environment where they can make up their own minds in an ethical way, and to do this, we need to use information correctly.  Anytime we use information off the Internet or from another source, it must be cited, so the students understand the importance of giving credit where credit is due.  We must also be balanced in our information.  Articles should not be used off of obviously biased sites unless that bias is the focus of discussion.  In this way, students will learn to recognize just because information is on the web, it doesn’t mean that it is fact.  They need to recognize bias as well.

My goal for this trimester is twofold: to focus on teaching my students to look critically at information to decide its purpose and origination, and to model the use of a bibliography at the end of each of my flipcharts (the ActivInspire version of a slide).