and I'm all out of bubble gum…

One of my responsibilities at Jewish Day School is to write a weekly “tech tips” column for the online faculty news. This is one such tip. This one is, perhaps, particularly our-setup-specific (My Classes, Handins, Returns, etc.), but I think that the core ideas are worth sharing to the world.

One of the real challenges that we confront when teaching in a digital classroom is that there are a tremendous number of documents, spread across a tremendous number of computers, often in tremendously varying states of completion. A team of faculty is coalescing around digital portfolios this spring, and file management is the single greatest challenge that we’re looking at initially.

With that in mind, it seems timely to suggest some best practices for working with files in the My Classes folder on FirstClass:

  • Email attachments hurt. If students are turning in their work an email attachments, it counts against their disk quota (which is pretty slim by this point in the year). And you have to open each and every single message to download the attachment so that you can read it. That’s a recipe for frustration. Instead, have your students upload their files directly to the Handins folder — they can just drag them from their computer desktop into the FirstClass folder (or choose Upload… from the File menu in FirstClass). Files in the My Classes folder do not count against anyone’s disk quota. The best part: you can now select a group of files in your Handins folder and drag them to your computer desktop to download all of them all at once (no more opening every individual email).
  • File names matter. Ask your students to include both the name of the assignment and their name in the name of the file that they’re uploading. If the students don’t put their name on their files, it’s a hassle to figure out who turned in what. And likewise, if they don’t put the assignment on the file, you’ve got to open the file to find out. The file names don’t need to be Homeric epics: “Feb. 18 Essay – Seth B.doc” works great as a file name.
  • Students can’t cheat from the Handins folder. They aren’t able to open other people’s work (or even their own), nor can they remove their work once it’s turned in (so no coming back with an “improved” version after the fact). In fact, the only person who can open the files in the Handins folder is… the teacher.
  • Students need to be told about the Returns folder. Every class has a Returns folder that has an individual folder for each student in the class. You can drag files you are returning to those students directly into those folders (from, say, your computer desktop). Only the student whose folder it is can open the folder and read the files (and they can’t change them). Plus, now you don’t have student files cluttering up your inbox and counting against your disk quota as email attachments!
  • Be clear, but firm. You’re teaching technical skills, and your students won’t get it right at first. Help them to turn in their files correctly (i.e. in a way that is easy for you to work with), rather than fixing their mistakes. Every mistake you fix will end up being a mistake you have to fix every time.

Obviously, the list goes on, but these five best practices should help cut through some of the chaos and confusion accompanied by the proliferation of documents produced by a digital classroom!

February 18th, 2010

Posted In: "Tech Tips" Column

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This post is part of a series that are components of my “Expert Plan” at my school, looking to create a shared resource for my colleagues as the school moves towards greater adoption of laptops and technology in our pedagogy.

The Model

I started off using this model in both my [high school] classes. I post an outline of the class to the wiki before class. At the start of class, as I discuss the agenda for the day with the students, I project the outline on the board. After discussing the agenda (my plan, their questions, etc.), I ask for three volunteers: one to take notes into the outline during class, one to review those notes for content before the next class, and one to review those notes for clarity before the next class. The content reviewer is responsible for correcting any mistakes (or omissions) that the original notetaker made. The clarity reviewer is responsible for proofreading and correcting the notes into a readable, standard English format.

In Practice

I found, almost immediately, that while the [media design] class was (grudgingly) willing to do the notetaking, the [computer animation] class revolted against it. The revolt in computer animation had a lot to do with the difficulty of simultaneously following along with the processes that we were learning in a computer modeling application and also keeping a browser window open and taking notes into the wiki. Theoretically, a dual display setup might have ameliorated some of those concerns (screen real estate was demonstrably at a premium as they were trying to use both applications, the browser and the 3D modeling tool). However, the real issue lay in the division of attention.

I have stopped asking the computer animation class to take notes into the wiki, but continue to encourage them to take their own notes (a practice that none of them engages in voluntarily — and their difficulty grasping new concepts reflects real difficulty storing the concepts for reflection, whether in their heads, their notebooks or their computers).

I have substituted somewhat more detailed notes of my own in the outlines for computer animation, or links to more detailed tutorials online covering the same concepts that we are learning in class, or links to screencasts demonstrating the concepts and processes we are learning in class. (One challenge that I have run into is that, using Blender, many of the tutorials and screencasts assume a great deal of prior familiarity with the materials, if not the tool, so I have been working on recording more basic level screencasts for that class).

On the flip side, we have settled into a routine in [media design] in which I ask for a notetaking team only on days when I know that we will be having a concept-based discussion/critique/lecture (as opposed to process or application-based lessons). A core of students have stepped up as fairly reliable notetakers, although I am working to spread the responsibility out across all students in the class — although I have set up no formal system of rotation (this lack of a formal system is actually based on previous experience with rigid rotations on what is, essentially, a creative task: it’s lousy. It works far better to set up an expectation that everyone will do it, and then ask for volunteers in the moment, while creating a (public) tracking system to ensure that no one is left out.

One issue that I have run into, particularly over a span of project-based lessons which are not discrete lessons but actually the continuation of a single idea (editing a video, for example), is that I lose track of time and forget to keep the wiki up-to-date. I focus my attention on the process occurring in class, rather than in documenting the process. Since my rationale for documenting the process is provide a resource for the students, this is deeply problematic and something that I need to address.


Early on, I realized that I should have made more of an effort to distinguish between concept-based and practice-based classes, and to create different models for collaborative notetaking in each of those environments. My computer animation class did well in articulating their frustration (mostly) respectfully, and speaking up for their own needs and learning styles.

I have not incorporated the notetaking into the students’ grades (which was, really, something that slipped my mind), framing the notetaking not as an assignment, but as a collaborative study tool. I’m not sure that this is a winning motivator for students. I think it works in my [media design] class because they are a) intrinsically interested in the material at a more conceptual level and b) generally a year or two older on average than my computer animation class. That maturity is reflected across the board — preparation, classroom demeanor, participation, actual product. It would, of course, be easy to connect a grade to participation in the notetaking (do some math, figure out how many times everyone needs to do it to cover the semester or quarter and assign it that many times).

The other missing component, and this has much to do with my teaching style, is adequate review of the student notes, to provide feedback on quality (and quantity). Early(er) in the year, I should have dedicated much more of a class period to going over the previous period’s notes and pushing each of the members of the notetaking team to be more accountable. To be honest, the switch from meeting my classes 4-5 times a week to 2-3 meetings (yay for changing schools!) left me running ragged trying to keep up with material, and process fell by the wayside.

November 22nd, 2009

Posted In: "Expert Plan", Collaborative Writing and Editing, Educational Technology, Teaching

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