Harnessing technology to empower students and individualise learning

Harnessing technology to empower students and individualise learning

We’ve all heard it, right? You can’t effectively teach to the needs of a whole class in one go. Whole class lessons simply don’t work. So the solution is to teach in small groups. Tailor the lesson to suit their needs, keep a close eye on misconceptions, get more feedback from all students… everyone wins, right?

Well, everyone except for that student who didn’t quite get it and now has no access to support because you’re teaching another group. Oh, and that other student who just needs to hear the instructions once more. And of course there’s that other student who is happily completing his task… completely and obliviously wrong, but you’re none the wiser until you mark his work after school because you were working with another group. And that special event this week means that group B missed out on their lesson… Yeah, you might be getting the sense that small group work wasn’t cutting it for me or my students. I had to think differently. I needed a solution that would:

  • provide opportunity to teach to student’s needs
  • allow students to work at their pace – including repeating/reviewing lessons when needed
  • leave me free to support students in class to watch for misconceptions, troubleshoot and keep all learners on task.

Here’s what I’ve come up with… Notability + Google Drive + iPads = Brilliant.

The context for this is in a grade 4 math classroom, although it could be applied to almost any context. It’s worth noting that we are a 1:1 iPad classroom and all students have a Google Apps for Education email account, Notability and Google Drive installed on their iPads.

The workflow is:

  • Create the lesson – at the moment focused on division strategies – using Notability on my iPad. With this I am able to write on the screen and record my voice. Because I am able to create many lessons, I am able to keep them short and specific. I found that when I was working with small groups in class, it was so long between seeing each group that I then tried to teach too much to them in one go.
    • Once my lesson is finished, I am able to import PDF worksheets for immediate consolidation of the new task. Sometimes I’ll add in some worded problem or open ended type problems to extend their thinking and application. This is all within one note in Notability.
  • When I’m ready for students to take the lessons, I will share the note (in notability file format – not PDF – to include the voice recording) to a Google Drive folder that I have also shared with students in that group.
  • Students then open Notability on their iPads and import my notes/lessons. They are able to listen and watch the lesson, then proceed to their independent practice without interruption or need to setup their task.
  • Students work is automatically backed-up to Google Drive where I can view their progress if I didn’t see them in class. I can also import documents to my iPad, comment on them with voice and/or writing and then send it back to the student’s Drive folder. However I find the best form of feedback and check-in is in class. As students finish, I will check their work and move them to the next task – Mathletics tasks or teaching their new learning in Explain Everything.

Organising the lessons

Inside a lesson

Notability note layout

Within a week I’m already seeing huge benefits for  both students and myself:

  • Lessons now effectively become one on one as students plug in their headphones to focus on the lesson without distraction from other students,
  • Students can watch and re-watch the lessons to help them understand,
  • Students are taking on more responsibility for their learning,
  • Students are able to move at the pace that suits them – some are racing through lessons, while others are being more diligent to ensure they understand the lesson,
  • I am free during lessons to:
    • troubleshoot students’ queries
    • identify misconceptions or students who are off track
    • monitor students’ progress and move them to the next step of learning when they’re ready (in fact I’m finding I’m far more aware of students’ work and abilities compared with before)
    • less after school marking as it’s done in class (after school is now spent creating the new lessons)

Coding for the Future

My recent involvement in a student Code Camp run by Code Avengers opened my eyes to the benefits of coding with kids and the reasons why we, as teachers, need to offer more opportunities to code in school. With direct links to math and language, along with the fact that coding promotes problem solving, logical reasoning and analytical thinking, there are more than enough reasons why teachers should be introducing this skill to their students.

Continue reading this post on the New Media Consortium Blog

Google Search Tools

Have you ever noticed that ‘Search Tools’ button that comes up in Google Searches? Ever taken the time to explore it? Google Search Tools button

Here are some handy tools that you can use with your students.

Tip: click on the GIF image to load a larger (and easier to see) version.

Adjust Results by Reading Levels

Note: Basic results often brings up ask.com, answers.yahoo.com, etc type pages. This is a great opportunity to teach about content reliability.

Adjust Google Results by Reading Level

Search Images for Creative Commons

Click here to learn more about Creative Commons license types.

Creative Commons Google Image Search

Search Images by Type

Image type Google Search

Search Images by Size

Note: this is useful if you need a high-resolution picture to print or a low resolution for when building online content.

Image size Google Search

Skoolbo: Game based learning in elementary school

I recently read a great article, ‘Games for a digital age: K-12 market map and investment analysis‘ that has piqued my interest in the idea of game-based learning and how the evolving world of educational technology can be used to bring a new experience to game-based learning.

In the article, the authors define game-based in a number of ways, but ultimately explain that it must include:

  • voluntary participation
  • a goal (finish line, objective achieved, win/lose, etc)
  • rules to structure the game
  • feedback system(s), which can be in the form of rewards and incentives
  • (in the context of schools) knowledge or educational outcomes

Recently we introduced a trial of a relatively new app to our Senior Kindergarten iPads called Skoolbo. It is also available for download on Android devices, Windows PCs and Macs. It captured my interest because of its game based learning environment which fits in very well with our play-based inquiry learning philosophy. It’s been great! The developer, Shane Hill (former Mathletics developer) has done a great job of incorporating the elements of play based learning.

  • voluntary participation
    • students were accessing Skoolbo from home before the teacher was even able to set them up at school!
    • Access to Skoolbo in class is usually on a voluntary basis during ‘centre time’ where a variety of play-based learning experiences are available to students. They love it and are happy to play!
  • a goal (finish line, objective achieved, win/lose, etc)
    • Within each game, students race to the finish line in their plane or on foot by answering as many questions correctly as they can. The more correct answers, the faster they go. If they get three wrong, they’re out.
    • Another set of goals is provided via the rewards schemes… see below.
  • rules to structure the game
    • The rules are simple… the more correct answers, the faster you go.
    • The more you play, the more you are able to customise aspects such as your plane.
    • 3 incorrect answers and you’re out.
  • feedback system(s), which can be in the form of rewards and incentives
    • Rewards schemes are also cleverly built-in to the game to encourage short, mid and long-term participation. Such rewards include becoming a superhero after meeting a certain objective.
    • Indirect feedback is also provided in the adaptable question base. As students perform well, the questions get harder. As they begin to struggle, the questions get easier. Soon an average is met that challenges students at just the right level.
  • (in the context of schools) knowledge or educational outcomes
    • At this stage, the game hones in on core literacy and math skills. After pre-assessment on the first 4 games, the system cleverly adapts to the child’s ability.

To finish up, check out this little smarty in action!


email for 8 year olds… really?

This is a question that I often receive when I explain how our Grade 3 students are introduced to email. In fact, at our school we introduce Google Apps for Education (and email) to our grade 3 students. We do this for a number of reasons that I’m not going to go in to in this post. Having said that, one of the key reasons for introducing online tools to our students at such a young age is to have them develop the understandings of safe and responsible online use before they are online themselves and develop poor habits.

This week we (the Grade 3 teachers and I) have begun the process of this task with some of our classes by having students learn about digital citizenship. We began by dedicating a large amount of time for students to explore a range of websites, videos, games and posters that explore digital citizenship. This was followed by ‘homework’ and another 20 minutes in the next lesson with continued exploration. At the beginning of this I made it clear that the kids’ only responsibility was to be a thinker and think about how to be safe and responsible. No notes or questions were needed.

Following this, I introduced the tool of Google Docs by sharing an open document (so that they didn’t need access to their account yet) with the following questions:

  • Form: What does being online mean? What are some examples of being online?
  • Responsibility: How do I be responsible when online? How should I behave?
  • Reflection: How do I know when I should ask an adult for help?

To help prevent ‘getting in the way’ of each other on this document, the girls entered what they could for 10 minutes, followed by the boys for 10 minutes. Together, today’s class came up with four pages of information.

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Following this, we held a discussion to review what we had learned. We used wordle.net to copy the notes into to find common themes among the answers. During this discussion, it was evident the kids had a solid understanding of responsible and safe online behaviours.

Next up, we will develop an essential agreement/user policy for our email and Google Apps. The kids will also be involved in create digital citizenship posters to display in the lab, classrooms and on our in-house TVs.

Gaming in education

I’ve just finished reading this press release titled ‘Gartner Says by 2015, More Than 50 Percent of Organizations That Manage Innovation Processes Will Gamify Those Processes‘ by Gartner.

It’s a short article and worth the read itself, but for the sake of this post the article highlights some of the ways that organisations are beginning to use gaming as a method to nurture innovation, collaboration and communication. It also lists four reasons why this form of ‘workplace’ is becoming more successful and I couldn’t help but see the immediate connections to education and the benefits that educational gaming can provide. 

At this point, I want to clarify what I am now (after reading the article) think of gaming. In the past I always thought of gaming as just that, games where educational objectives or inspiration can be drawn from it. Gaming in my mind now is more broad that that. It is any online/computer based environment that provides users with short term and long term objectives in a fun and stimulating way. Often an avatar is representing the end user and rewards are issued for achieving the goals. One perfect example in my mind is http://www.mathletics.com.

Back to the article…

Gartner identified four principal means of driving engagement using gamification:

1. Accelerated feedback cycles. In the real world, feedback loops are slow (e.g., annual performance appraisals) with long periods between milestones. Gamification increases the velocity of feedback loops to maintain engagement.


  • Feedback is critical for learning. One teacher in a room of 20+ students simply can’t physically provide the instant feedback to students like games can. Students learn what they know and what they don’t yet know as they progress – not a week later when the learning opportunity has passed.


2. Clear goals and rules of play. In the real world, where goals are fuzzy and rules selectively applied, gamification provides clear goals and well-defined rules of play to ensure players feel empowered to achieve goals.


  • This to me is a critical element in successful teaching and learning. Students need boundaries, guidelines and limits – but not restrictions. Games can provide the general rules of play in the learning context, but the learning objectives can be changed within those rules.


3. A compelling narrative. While real-world activities are rarely compelling, gamification builds a narrative that engages players to participate and achieve the goals of the activity.


  • Narratives and story telling have been shown to be very successful in helping students learn and remember their learning. Enough said!


4. Tasks that are challenging but achievable. While there is no shortage of challenges in the real world, they tend to be large and long-term. Gamification provides many short-term, achievable goals to maintain engagement.


  • Many educationally designed games not only allow teachers to assign appropriate learning objectives to individual students’ needs, but the games themselves then adjust based on the students’ performance. If the student is doing well, the content gets harder and vice versa.

I hope that Gartner are correct in their prediction of the impact of gaming on organisations and companies, because there is no doubt this will help to impact education too.

Traveling with Google


I want to start off the 2012-2013 year by singing my praises about Google Translate and Maps.


Not enough is said about the wonderful – granted, still developing – but wonderful tool of Google Translate. I’ve recently returned from a 6 week vacation in Spain, Portugal and Morocco and Google Translate has been by my side the whole way to help me through a number of situations that would have been a lot more difficult without it, including:


  • Buying bus and train tickets online – a number of the website that I needed to use to book my next travel option weren’t in English. By simply copying and pasting the whole website URL into Google Translate, any text on the page (including drop down menus) is translated to your desired language.
  • Reading menus – countless times I used google translate to help me understand some of the foods that I was about to order from various menus – and which ones not to order!
  • Medical help – with my wife and I falling ill from food poisoning during the trip, Google Translate helped us when at the pharmacy to get some much-needed rehydration salts!
  • Hotel and attraction reviews on www.tripadvisor.com – with their built-in Google Translator tool, you can read all the reviews, not just those in your language.
  • Just for fun – during some of our downtime we ended up watching Spanish game shows on TV. Google Translate was great at helping us play along – as long as I could type the question quickly enough 🙂


Of course, I should also mention the many hours and kilometres extra walking that were saved with thanks to Google Maps and the directions feature within, helping us to find hotels down winding lane ways in Spain, bus and train stations, and even provide some sense of direction in the medieval, maddening medinas of Morocco.


Thanks for the great vacation Google!