Online ERB Test Pilot: Hits and Misses

This year’s news that ERB would be moving assessments to online formats was met with mixed emotions. While providing instant feedback and allowing students to take exams digitally were apparent benefits, the questions came just as quickly for our school. For the first year, we decided to pilot online testing with 3rd and 6th grades only.

How would that work? The first question we had to answer dealt with devices. Our school doesn’t own PC for every student. We have class-sets of iPads in K-2, 1:1 Linux/Windows netbooks in 3rd through 5th grades, then a FLEx 1:1 in Middle School program which includes Chromebooks, iPads, Macbooks, Windows laptops and more.  ERB’s secure browser does not work on a Linux platform, which ruled out our 144 netbooks, and the cost of leasing laptops was prohibitive.  Another issue: ERB’s recommendation was to avoid using wireless access, which added another level of logisitics to consider. Hubs for every 5 computers? Temporary computer labs during testing week?

A couple of months before testing week, I discovered via twitter that ERB was preparing an iPad app for the CTP Online. While using an app relies on wireless access, approximately 75% of our FLEx 1:1 students bring iPads to school. The other 20% or so bring laptops, which they could use for testing, and the students with Chromebooks, Kindles, or without a device, could borrow a school iPad. Third graders could simply use the school-owned K-2 iPads for the 3 mornings of testing.

 One Week Before

Preparation for testing week included importing a .csv file of student data from our student information system, downloading the secure browser on tech lab computers (for backup devices) and school-owned iPads. We also worked with each middle school student to ensure that the CTP Online could be accessed from their own laptop or iPad. The only glitches we encountered were students not remembering to use their given name when logging in (the system doesn’t recognize “Squirrel” even though that’s what everyone on campus calls you), and students without sufficient permissions on their laptops to download ERB’s browser. We also met with section proctors to show them what the app and browser look like, and how to set up sessions through ERB’s online portal.

Testing Week

Bandwidth monitoring and traffic throttling on our Meraki gear helped ensure that students taking the test online would have sufficient access, and Meraki’s wireless access points continued to perform extremely well. All students were asked to leave their devices at school between test days, and they brought chargers so each morning every device was charged for the day. Students did experience a few connection errors throughout testing sessions, but after seeing that bandwidth was ample, I’m guessing ERB’s servers may have been dealing with some significant traffic. All students had to do, though, was log back in to the test and pick up right where they left off. Proctors and students alike handled the connection errors quickly, while pausing the test if needed, so it had minimal impact.  Overall, CTP Online could be considered a success.

 For Next Year…

ERB: please develop a preparation environment for test proctors and students. The professional development and preparation pieces of the CTP Online are still quite lacking. Also, please complete the science portion of the app. It had been promised well before our test week, but was not ready, so we didn’t administer the science portion to our online students. As of my last conversation with ERB, there is no ETA for the science app.

Feedback from students has been interesting. They were more cautious than I anticipated about changing to an online test environment, but once they had, really seemed to appreciate only seeing one question at a time and the ability to flag and review all questions before completing a session. It will be interesting to see if there are trends we can detect between online and paper/pencil assessments. While we all agree that standardized assessments are only one piece of comprehensive evaluation (at best), I don’t see them going anywhere soon. Used well, results can guide professional development and curriculum decisions…and integrating technology for test delivery seems to show promise.

Parents’ Top 10 Technology Questions for a Tech Director

 With the introduction of our FLEx 1:1 program (modified BYOD) we have held several parent information sessions.  Following are some of the most common questions – and my answers.

1.  Why does my child need a computer at school?  It’s not that we believe technology makes everything better. Some things need to remain: use of a pottery wheel, a kite and a kickball to name a few. Technology does open doors. It allows students access to mentors, a globe-full of information, ways to work with each other even when they live in different parts of town, and unique ways to demonstrate mastery of concepts and share their creativity.

2.  Can you teach me how to use Excel? Yes. Better yet, let us show your child, and let him or her show you. We will give students an opportunity to learn tools like spreadsheets for a meaningful project. Let them share their new-found expertise with you in making a spreadsheet for your family budget, family birthday lists, or anything else you need.

3.  Why is the internet so slow? There are many reasons your home internet could be slow, from the amount of bandwidth you pay for to the type of media you’re downloading, to the wiring in your house or your individual device. Contact Comcast, Charter, Verizon, or whoever you rely on for this service.

4.  How can I get my child to put a device down? The best idea I’ve heard came from a colleague (and fellow parent) from Cisco. Create a digital curfew for your family. It works even better if it includes the adults in the house, too.  That means parents get to take a break from Pinterest and Facebook, too!  Turn all devices in, make sure they’re charging and address any issues. It’s a great chance for parents to take a quick look at device content.  If your kids express concerns about privacy issues, just remind them it’s not them you mistrust. Other students and strangers online can expose your children to content they’re just not ready for. It’s your job to protect them.

5.  Which device should my student be bringing?  Students at our school may bring an iPad, Mac, Windows or Linux laptop, or other tablet. The best answer to this question will come when you look at what you need the device to do. Does it need to be extra lightweight? If your child already has a 20 pound backpack, a laptop is a tough addition. Can your child keep up with a charger? If not, a long-battery-life Chromebook or laptop is a good choice. Need to do lots of image and video creating and editing? Opt for Apple’s iLife software. These are just a few of the considerations, but a good conversation with your child will help get you started down the road of choosing the best tool.

6.  How can I know who my child is interacting with online?  While it’s virtually impossible to stay a step ahead of kids on social media, it’s important to try. Know which apps they’re using. SnapChat, Vine, and more are cropping up as popular tools with easy gateways for inappropriate use. Talk with your kids. Insist that they allow you access to their social media accounts and check them from time to time. Just being friends with your child on Facebook or following them on Twitter does not mean that you’re seeing all of their online activity. Private messages and specific friends’ lists allow users to define who sees what. Stay in the loop!

7.  Should I let my kid set up an Instagram account?  If they are not 13, the answer is no. Suggest they try going for a run, reading a book, tossing a frisbee or sketching – even better, join them. They simply don’t need to be on social media. We don’t recommend setting up parent accounts and friend-ing or following your kids’ classmates. So many parents complain about their children’s use of social media as tweens, but were complicit in setting up the access. After 13, have a very frank discussion with your kids about responsible use, and the serious consequences of irresponsible use before you support their foray into life online.

8.  Should I filter internet access at my house? If so, how?  The answer depends on the age of the children in your house. As they grow up, the need for filtering should diminish as they mature and learn to navigate away from the inappropriate content they will inevitably encounter. If they’re younger, yes. Netnanny and OpenDNS are just a couple of the filters that work well for home. On iPads, you can also use safe browsers like Mobicip. On iPads and Macbooks you can enable restrictions on student activity including apps and browsing.

9.  What are Google Docs?  Just last week an adult came to me distressed because her USB drive had failed. When I explained to her that uploading her material to Google Docs (Drive) would make it available from any computer, she realized it’s a powerful solution. Our students, from third grade and up, have access to uploading, creating and sharing documents and spreadsheet using our Google domain. Rather than documents being stored on the hard drive of a computer or on a USB drive, Google Drive stores all of a user’s content in the “cloud,” or on their servers. Microsoft has a similar tool called SkyDrive, but we have seen great ease of use and reliability with Google’s education domain.

10.  When are you holding another parent coffee?  Yes, it seems like there is constant interest in technology information by parents…and that’s a very good thing. Work hard to keep the lines of communication open!

Failing UP

Play at school is usually something that happens between math and language arts, and usually after lunch. Why not let it be a part of the way we learn?  It’s not often a keynote speech at a conference really makes you think, but that’s exactly what Katie Salen, Executive Director of the Institute of Play, did when I had the opportunity to hear her speak at FETC in January.  

Games (video, board, card or otherwise) rarely find their place in content-based classrooms, but the potential for using them to engage and motivate students is significant.  As Ms. Salen shared, gaming creates a unique platform for learning. Games provide constant challenge and ongoing feedback; no waiting a week to find out how well you know your algebraic functions, no daydreaming while the teacher covers once again a skill you’ve mastered.

 Best of all, games allow students to fail – up. No longer is a failure the final word. If students fail a level, the lesson learned becomes part of their growing library of expertise, and facilitates a better run at the goal the next time. Imagine how much more could be learned, and the amount of confidence students could gain, if they had the chance to fail up every time.   

Parent S.O.S.! Keeping the Lines of Communication Open

Having an office nicknamed the “fishbowl” may sound less-than-desirable, but open doors and ample windows have created regular reminders not to leave parents behind in our charge toward innovative technology use.  Not a week goes by without parents stopping in with questions about how our students are using technology – and what they can do to make it more effective at home on kids devices (and their own).  They want to know what Google Docs are, who Edmodo is, whether or not they should let their children set up Instagram and Path accounts, and how technology can help their kids get organized. The last one is often of more importance to parents than students, but I’m sure that’s not a surprise to anyone who works with middle schoolers.

We hosted many parent coffees and workshops before the FLEx 1:1 program started. They were well attended and really helped ease the nerves of parents hesitant to set their kids loose with iPads and laptops all day. What I didn’t anticipate was the ongoing interest in and importance of helping parents understand exactly how technology is being used in the classroom.

Next week we plan to host our first Parent S.O.S. – Tech Help coffee. We will cover how cloud-based tools and apps are used in classes, as well as the use of teacher-made instructional videos, screencasting and other multimedia apps. The session will also share several apps and sites for support in learning strategies for kids of all ability levels. From Abilipad to Dragon, Sticky Notes to Opus Mobile planner, a laptop or iPad well-used can make any student’s workload more manageable and supportive of his or her learning style.

Lesson learned: don’t leave parents behind! Acknowledging and encouraging parent support of instructional technology helps build a sense of community and keep the lines of communication wide open.

How to Curate an App Collection: Making the Most of iPad Real Estate

The number of excellent (and less-than-excellent) apps available for educators is growing exponentially.  It seems every other tweet I read begins with “10 apps for…”  Our challenge now is choosing the best apps for our class sets of iPads.  We manage only one image for iPads from Kindergarten through 2nd grade, which means it’s even more important that apps be able to support multiple disciplines and developmental levels.  Curating the collection of apps is much like the Librarian’s task of developing a collection that best supports learners and their leaders.  Sure, someone may donate 50 copies of Video Game Cheats You Need Now! but, after evaluation, they may not be the best use of shelf real estate in the library.  Following are a few strategies we are using to help create the most effective collection of apps on our iPads.

1.  Make sure the app requires students to participate.   iPads are excellent tools for information consumption – but good app selection can make them so much more.  Looks for activities that require students to move objects, stack, think, draw, and provide their own ideas.   For example, students learning about dog breeds could browse a flash card-type app to view information about different breeds OR use a drawing and narration app (Draw and Tell, Skitch, PixNTell) to create their own image of a dog breed and label identifying features.

2.  Engagement is key.  An engaged learner is a motivated learner…and a well-designed app can pique the interest of even the most reluctant learner.  Design elements such as fonts, themes, sounds and ease of use are critical.

3.  Minimize frustration.  Free apps are recommended all the time.  Make sure you try them out, though.  Often, the free apps are so filled with ads that younger students can’t complete an activity without accidentally be directed to an ad.   Add-ons are a significant source of frustration as well.  Many apps are built with a very small amount of actually free content, and tease students with additional games, characters and other activities – that often are more interesting than the free content.  Students will learn so much more if they don’t spend half their time avoiding ads and clicking on unavailable content.

4.  Curriculum is a strong foundation.  Browse your school’s curriculum map and standards for content areas to tie use of technology in a meaningful way.  Look beyond just specific content, too.  It’s great to use an 50 States app but also ask what the true educational goals for the activity are.  Do you want students to learn note-taking skills?  Compare and contrast?

5.  Range and Reach!  How many different ability levels will the app support?  Can it be used in different content areas?  Choose apps that students can use all the way from initial exposure to a concept through its mastery.  This will also let students move at their own pace, review when necessary and push beyond when they are ready.  This is true not just for content but for developmental areas, as well.   As their fine motor skills, concrete thinking, transfer and discernment skills grow so should their interaction with apps.

Remember,  developing an app collection is a collaborative, dynamic process.   Sources such as appitic.com provide lists of apps indexed many different ways, and already vetted by professionals.   Take the time to gather input from classroom teachers, IT professionals, resource teachers and the students themselves.  Be willing to weed, reorganize and tweak the collection from time to time, to keep the iPads an excellent resource for supporting classroom instruction.

1:1 Pilot Soars in Week 1 – FLEx Success and Lessons Learned

The first school day of 2013 loomed a bit, as it would bring the first day of 1:1 in our Middle School.  We planned longer for this pilot than some people plan for their weddings, but all you can do is prepare the best you know how and wait to see how it actually rolls out.

Bright, shining faces with bright, shining Chromebooks, MacBooks, PC laptops, iPads and more greeted me on Day 1.  Sure, we encountered some minor troubleshooting issues, but overall the first week was more successful than I could have hoped.  Some highlights and lessons learned:

- A new Chromebook will generate significant interest in an iPad-saturated teen world.  It should be in a case before being grabbed and shared by enthusiastic 12-year-olds.

- Edmodo (or any other shared platform) will experience technical difficulties and/or roll out significant upgrades exactly when your teachers try to begin using it in large measure.

- Education resources absolutely love Flash – and in some cases Shockwave.  Remember that? The Rover app provides about the best patch for iPad users I’ve found.

- Middle School teachers are among the most flexible and creative I’ve ever seen.  They are happy to step out of the way and let kids run with creative technology solutions.

- Responsible use is a dynamic concept to some degree – and should be handled that way. Each student, device, app, assignment and issue create unique conversations that are worth having.

- With devices in the classroom, teachers have many more opportunities to demonstrate quality research and share that no, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post are not the same things.

- FLEx creates a bridge across the divide of cultural references between students and faculty.  When a student’s new glasses remind a teacher of Buddy Holly, said student can figure out who on earth his teacher is talking about…and of course teachers can finally figure out which direction “One Direction” means.

I can’t wait to see the apps, tools and strategies our teachers and students discover and share with each other.  The FLEx program is designed to allow for organic, authentic use of technology to support learning – and it looks like it’s going to do just that.

Hands Off My iPad!

When I first starting working with integrating technology, I ran across a valuable piece of advice: don’t touch a student’s computer. It may sound easy, but I’ll admit I couldn’t resist the urge to take a few keyboards into my own hands – “Here, this is how you make it work.” Of course the students I was helping learned considerably less than if they had fixed the problem themselves, but 18 little pairs of hands at a time can be a handful to manage if you want to accomplish any tech-infused objectives. Just this week, I caught myself reaching beside a first grader to show her how to restart an app. Fortunately, her reflexes were quicker than mine.  She had it restarted before I could even tap the right icon.  It can be tough to balance the accomplishment of objectives with the logistics of the school day and tools at hand, but taking the extra few minutes to let students’ hands (and minds) do the work is worth it.   At least during flu season there’s an extra incentive to take the hands-off approach!