Saturday, June 21, 2014

3 EdTech Tools You Can Use To Gamify Your Classroom

This post first appeared on Edudemic in May 2014

Gamification is one of the buzzwords in education right now, and for a good reason:  Gamification is empowering, exciting, and under the right circumstances can be the disruptive innovator many teachers desperately need in order to change the dynamics between knowledge and the learner.   
There is an explosion of edtech tools destined to gamify the classroom, most of which are web-based, while others come in the form of an app.  Understandably, a teacher might wonder what is the best way to navigate through this sea of new, and subsequently, not thoroughly tested activities and tools.   Throughout the school year I tried several game-based platforms with my students.  Here are three game-based classroom solutions that helped me transform my fourth grade classroom into a dynamic learning environment.  All three tools are completely free.  Each platform is particularly strong in specific areas, therefore, depending on their needs, teachers can utilize one of the tools, or use a combination of two (or three), to maximize the impact on student learning.

The first, and probably the most popular game-based classroom platform is Socrative.   A prominent member of the “audience response systems” family, Socrative is a powerful tool that offers many options to teachers.  It is also one of the most diverse and adaptive of all platforms, as it offers three different highly customizable modes: the typical question-based game mode, a mode called “space race” which is a mode that aims to combine accuracy and speed, and a third mode called “Exit Ticket”, which can best be used at the end of a lesson as a means of taking the pulse of the classroom. 
Socrative supports multiple choice, true/false, and open response items.  It also allows the user to import images to the question items, and it features live results, immediate feedback, and effortless data analysis.  It can work equally well as a web-based tool as well as a mobile app.  Socrative is by far one of the most user-friendly, most customizable, most comprehensive free pieces of software, with some functions and abilities matched only by expensive edtech platforms. 

Here is a short introductory tutorial on Socrative.

Kahoot takes a somewhat different approach than Socrative.  It is a solid platform that is designed to follow on the footsteps of modern audience response systems.  Although it is not as multidimensional as Socrative, it excels in several key areas, one of which is its strong gamification element.  Kahoot’s carefully chosen music effects and colorful interface create an atmosphere of anticipation that motivates learners in a very intuitive way.
Kahoot is a tool that combines accuracy with speed.  Therefore, it is the perfect tool for activities and problems that do not require multiple steps or long calculations.  Kahoot is perfect for quick identification questions.  For instance, some of the areas where a teacher can use this fun and entertaining tool include multiplication tables, geographical locations, periodic table of elements, roots of words or synonyms, and identification of animals or body parts.  The ability to use pictures, and even Youtube videos in question items is a noteworthy and a rare advantage.  
Also, the clever point system Kahoot utilizes is an additional bonus that truly elevates learning into an enjoyable and highly rewarding experience.  In addition, the point system enhances the gamification element of the platform, making Kahoot a big hit in the classroom.

Here is a short introductory tutorial on Kahoot.

Unlike Socrative’s multidimensional nature, and Kahoot’s strong gaming orientation, FlipQuiz, the Jeopardy equivalent of edtech platforms, is a modern take on the well-established idea of traditional game-show style review quizzes. 
FlipQuiz is designed to accomplish a finite number of goals.  However, you should not let that fool you.  FilpQuiz is very good at what it does, and thus, it can earn a place in a modern classroom.  FlipQuiz allows you to create boards that run like a typical Jeopardy game, making it a great choice for teachers who have used Jeopardy games in the past, or are just people who love Jeopardy in the classroom.   Flipquiz makes it easy to design game-show style activities in the classroom that transform learning into an engaging and entertaining experience.  Teachers have the ability to use links to images found on the web and import them into the question items, type basic equations using subscript and superscript text, and even include web links to spice things up and keep their audiences involved at all times.   In addition, if you are teaching mathematics, FlipQuiz has a very nice surprise in store for you!  The platform now supports mathematical formulas, which can be added using the LaTex language.  Overall, FlipQuiz is a solid platform and a must have tools for teachers who want to review material in their classrooms.

Here is a short introductory tutorial on FlipQuiz.

Some Final thoughts

Human beings love playing games because most games are rewarding and entertaining at the same time.  That makes Gamification the perfect vehicle a teacher can use to harness his/her students’ innate motivation and curiosity, transforming learning into a fun and intrinsically rewarding activity.  As such, gamification allows teachers to create an environment that enables all students to feel safe to take risks in the classroom.  All three platforms mentioned above are very good at achieving that goal.  Teachers can use all three platforms interchangeably to add some pizzazz into their repertoire of teaching and keep their students’ interest alive at all times.

App Smashing In The Elementary Classroom

This post first appeared on Edudemic in February 2014

If you are a teacher that uses an iPad, chances are that you are familiar with the following scenario.  You found this amazing app that can really help your struggling students. The potential of this app is great, as it appears that this particular app can tap your students’ creativity and allow them to thrive in ways that were unthinkable until now.  The problem is that this app can only accomplish a small number of things, which prevents the students from completing a multidimensional project.  So what do you do now?

Due to the unfortunate fact that there isn’t a “silver bullet app” yet- an app that can accomplish many, very different tasks- we have to rely on teachers’ and students’ creativity in order to accomplish multi-step tasks using the iPad.  Thankfully, app smashing, - the process of using many different apps in conjunction with one another to accomplish a task- as Greg Kulowiec of EdTechTeacher defines it, comes to fill the void and opens the door for endless opportunities for teachers and students to unleash their creativity and use the power of the iPad to create some extraordinary products.

How does it work?
The basic premise behind app smashing, sometimes referred to as “app synergy”, is to find a number of key apps that “play well” with other apps and can communicate information across platforms.  Some of the native iPad apps have this capacity.  Also, Explain Everything, arguably one the most comprehensive, Swiss-Army type apps ever created, is ideal for such tasks.  However, the app that is the most powerful and is used in almost every app smashing activity is Apple’s Camera App.  It allows the user to store pictures, video, and sound files, which can be accessed later by other apps, which is what makes app smashing possible. 

In a typical app smashing activity a student can use an app to create a product such as a word cloud, a picture collage, a map, or a slide show presentation.  Then the student can save his/her creation on the Camera App, even if the product in this stage is not a picture (just click the Home and the Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously and your idevice will take a screen shot).  From there, the student can choose to open those pictures in other apps that build additional layers of creativity.  For instance apps such as Explain Everything, ThingLink, 30Hands, Haiku Deck, or Book Creator, can be used in that stage of the project for further annotation, feedback, analysis, or evaluation.  Finally, the student might choose to import one, or multiple projects, in iMovie and create a final product that truly redefines his/her learning experience.  The last step should also include publishing the final product in appropriate and accessible ways.

Here is an example of two app smashing activities.

Here is a list of app smashing activities you can use to get started

What is the target audience of app smashing?
Although my personal work has been directed towards the elementary school audience – for those with limited iPad experience in the classroom, as well as for those who are proficient users of the iPad – I found that students and teachers of all grade levels find the concept of app smashing exhilarating.  Our middle school students for instance, have used app smashing to create social studies reports, and some of our fifth graders have used app smashing to illustrate their high order thinking in multifaceted ways.  My fourth grade students have used app smashing to create augmented reality projects as well as their own science iBooks.  They loved every second of the process and were very proud of the, admittedly, high quality products.

Some Final Thoughts

App smashing projects have the ability to enable student collaboration to produce creative and innovative answers to problems.  In addition, due to the fact that app smashing encourages creativity and innovation, it appears that every app smashing activity is aligned to several Language Arts and Math Common Core Standards across grade levels.  It is truly amazing to watch students unleash their innate creativity by building extraordinary technology projects using the iPad.  Undoubtedly, app smashing creates unique opportunities for teachers and students to explore and discover the true power of the iPad.

Leap Motion In The Classroom

This post first appeared on Edudemic in October 2013

Leap Motion is a brand new and highly promising device.  For those who never heard of the Leap Motion controller before, it’s a small piece of hardware, compatible with both, Macs and PC’s, that allows the user to control the device without touching the keyboard, the mouse, or the screen.  Its pedagogical potential persuaded me to spend the $80, a somewhat steep asking price, and try it in my classroom.  In my trials I discovered that the petite device can make an excellent teaching companion, and can complement a teacher’s arsenal of teaching tools.

Given the fact that Leap Motion is a newcomer to the filed of technology, the number of available applications, particularly education-oriented applications, is naturally, low at the moment.  However, the few that are available, if used appropriately, can elevate any lesson to a highly enjoyable augmented reality experience, and as such, they can provide unique learning opportunities for all students, especially kinesthetic learners.  Furthermore, it appears that the Leap Motion controller has a great potential in the field of special education.  Special education students of all ages can benefit greatly from the advantages the small device offers. 

Teaching Earth & Space
The fact that the enormous size of planets, stars, and galaxies make them such an abstract concept to explain, teaching kids about space has always been a challenging task for many teachers.  Thankfully, Leap Motion comes to fill that gap and offer a unique, Tony Stark-like learning experience with Solar Walk.  Solar Walk is an app that costs $4.99, but in my opinion it is the best 499 cents I ever spent to buy a tool that helps me explain the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy in such a comprehensive way.  Students were able to use the Leap Motion controller to zoom in and away from the Sun, the planets of our solar system and their moons, as well as all of the major satellites that orbit Earth.  Using just their index figure, they were able to pull up facts and graphics about the internal structure of each planet, general information about a planet’s size, length of day and year, surface temperature, as well as the names of scientific missions and probes sent to these planets.  As an added bonus, the app offers true 3D environment with 3D glasses students can get at any movie theatre.  Students were so excited to work with Solar Walk and so inspired by its unique approach, that they insisted they wanted to write their own ebook about our solar system (look for it on the iBooks store in the near future). 

Teaching Social Studies
Arguably, Google Earth is the most modern, detail packed, and up-to-date map tool teachers can use to teach history and geography.  With Leap Motion teachers end up with nothing less than Google Earth on steroids.  Once you manage to master the admittedly highly sensitive controls, Leap Motion seems to have been created to complement Google Earth.  Both tools work in absolute harmony, and the user is able to perform flyovers over the entire world.  Our students were having a blast showing off their piloting skills and delivering a report on how to use cardinal directions as well as pinpointing the locations of major geographical features of the state of Florida.  Recently, Google added street view to the Galapagos Islands.  I can’t wait to use Leap Motion and Google Earth later this year, to teach animals and their unique ecosystems using street view on the Galapagos Islands.

Teaching Lower Elementary
There is something to be said about the Leap Motion’s potential in the lower elementary grades.  There is a limited, at the moment, number of very good apps on the Airspace store - Leap Motion’s equivalent of the Apple or Google app stores -designed specifically for young learners.  These apps can help students develop eye-hand coordination skills and at the same time explore educational concepts.  Caterpillar Count is a free app that kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers can use to teach counting skills as well as odd and even numbers.  Curious Kids is another app designed with the young learner in mind.  The cost is $1.99 and can be used by kindergarten and first grade teachers to teach skip counting, and animal and piano sounds.  Both apps do an excellent job in helping students develop their motor skills while working on number sense. 

Leap Motion and Gamification
Undoubtedly, the Leap Motion controller gives new meaning to one of the most popular modern trends in education: gamification.  Learning becomes a game, regardless of what you are doing with Leap Motion.  Its kinesthetic approach turns every activity into an enjoyable, highly interactive learning experience.  The students’ interest in the lesson is clearly more intense, and the sincere and voluntary effort they put into the tasks they perform keeps them engaged and motivated for longer periods of time.  More importantly, the students are more likely to retain the information they learn, and to apply this information to everyday situations to solve problems.  If you have been thinking about incorporating game-based activities and interactive learning in your classroom, the Leap Motion controller is a great starting point. 

Some Final Thoughts
Every now and then, new and promising technologies come to disturb the waters, and some of them eventually cause disruptive innovation.  Leap Motion belongs to that category.  It is a product with an incredible ability to tap people’s creativity, especially students, and open the door to unimaginable innovation.  For those familiar with the SAMR Model, this is “redefinition of learning and accomplishment of tasks previously inconceivable” at its best.  Early adopters and technology enthusiasts will probably love the Leap Motion controller, and they will try to find innovative ways to use it in the classroom.  However, eventually all teachers might want to give the minuscule device a shot in their classroom. 

Four Things To Consider Before You Flip Your Classroom

This post first appeared on Edudemic in July 2013

The Flipped Classroom model is gaining momentum in classrooms around the world. 
Much has been said and written about the benefits and advantages of the Flipped Classroom throughout the year, so during the last three weeks of school I decided to experiment with this model of instruction and I flipped my math classroom.  Using Explain Everything on my iPad, I created a series of videos that my students watched prior to coming to school.  In the classroom I had the opportunity to take advantage of the extra instructional time, as well as their excitement about sharing the knowledge they gained by watching the videos I created, and tried to engage my students in high order mathematical tasks.  Although the results were highly encouraging and made me a fervent proponent of the Flipped Classroom, there are four things that I think every classroom teacher should know before they start using the Flipped Classroom model.

Some Students Might Need Time to Adapt
Teachers should keep in mind that many students will need a week or two to adjust to the new “homework reality” that the Flipped Classroom is based on.  In fact, during the first couple of weeks many of the most responsible and hard working students who typically never miss a homework assignment will manage to “forget” to do their homework.  Although I suspect in my case, classroom fatigue is partially to be blamed for this phenomenon, after all, the end of a very long school year was close, I believe there is a deeper reason for this unwanted occurrence.  Some students might not do their homework because they are used to a more concrete and traditional paper-and-pencil homework assignment, and therefore they might perceive this “new homework” as abstract, irrelevant, and perhaps not as important.  Providing access to a laptop and privileges to watch the videos before the beginning of the school day may alleviate some of the problems, but eventually the students will have to understand that in a flipped classroom, completion of the homework assignment is a key component to successful learning.

Teacher-Made Videos Must Be Engaging
Watching teacher-made videos before class is one of the most commonly used components of the Flipped Classroom model.  It is widely accepted that the most effective videos are the ones that manage to keep students accountable for their learning.  This can be achieved by using a number of clever techniques to attract the students’ attention and captivate their interest in the lesson.  For example, at key parts of the lesson/video the teacher might instruct the students to pause the video and answer a question, or take notes, or make a prediction, or work on a short problem that requires students to apply recently learned knowledge.  Such techniques make students active participants and empower them to take control of their own learning.  In my short Flipped Classroom trial, I found that the video lessons in which I instructed the students to pause the video and answer specific questions about the nature of the math concept the lesson explored, led to some unexpectedly rich discussions in the classroom, transforming my students into self-motivated and dedicated learners.

Recording Time Might be Longer That you Anticipate
Teachers should know in advance that the time they will be spending to record lectures will be longer than anticipated, at least in the beginning.  A ten-minute video will take much more than ten minutes to complete.  First, the teacher will have to collect all of the resources and previously prepared material he/she intends to use in the lesson, such as background pictures, maps, or math problems to name a few.  In addition, unless you are proficient in screencasting, chances are that you will need to repeat recording the same lesson several times in order to create the highly effective video you originally had in mind.  This can be frustrating and even a deal breaker for some teachers.  Most people who flipped their classroom agree that in the beginning, teachers should expect to spend an average of 30 minutes of recording time to create a 10-minute lesson.  However, after the first four-five lessons, most people become more comfortable with screencasting and recording times reduced significantly. 

Video Formats Should be Chosen Carefully
Teachers need to make sure in advance that their students will be able to access the videos, and that these videos will be in formats that are playable by most video players.  I ran into this problem myself.  Using Explain Everything, I saved my videos in .mp4 format.  It turns out that some of my students have computers at home that are really old and not equipped with up-to-date video players.  Consequently, they were not able to watch the videos I made.  Teachers should keep in mind that many students will not have access to the latest and greatest of technology, and therefore they might not be able to access videos created on iPads or lessons recorded using modern software.  Saving each lesson in multiple formats might be a solution to this problem.  Also, creating a Youtube channel and posting videos on Youtube will make videos more accessible to all students.

What about you?  Have you flipped your classroom yet?  If yes, what are some obstacles you ran into? Do you have any advice/insight to share?