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Due to COVID-19, K12 teachers have been thrust into the role of distance learning teachers without much training or guidance into the unique challenges and rewards of teaching online (versus face-to-face). Also, teachers are using Google Classroom, which not really a full Learning Management System (LMS), which presents some distinct challenges.
In this post, I will share some ways to make distance learning more engaging for students. In addition to 23 years teaching, 3rd grade classroom, elementary tech, and middle and high school engineering, and 5 years as a an ed tech consultant, I have also been a part-time lecturer for many years at the Tufts Center for Engineering Education and Outreach Teacher Engineering Education Program (TEEP) and I have converted face to face classes to online classes for the Collaborative for Educational Services and PBS Teacherline. I picked up many of tips directly from these organizations as well as my own experience. I hope you find them useful!
- Supplement asynchronous with synchronous options. I would say for grade 5 and up, scheduled, asynchronous distance – where students access material when they want to – within a specific schedule – works best. The scheduled part differs from totally self-paced material, which does not lend itself to class interaction and can be isolating. While this post will focus on scheduled, asynchronous learning, synchronous options can be used as a supplement to get some “face to face” time. In a recent middle school Make Your Own Instrument I designed and ran with a music teacher colleague, we had a synchronous kick off meeting using Google Meet Hangouts. We also had daily office hour time, where we keep a Google Meet open for specific one to one help. Finally, for the culminating synchronous activity, students played Hot Cross Buns on their homemade instruments for the rest of the class. We also had a special guest from another part of the county join us who made and played a “slide potato”.
- Use lots (but not too much) of multimedia. It’s important to remember that lots of students have reading issues. It’s also challenging to face large amounts of text on a screen. Many students, as my own very social 13 year tells me, lose a lot of motivation for repetitive or long assignments sitting in front of a computer or other device, which has many interesting games or tabs, etc. So the more simulations, games, interactivity, videos, images, audio, the better. Of course, this needs thought. You don’t want a long, boring “talking head” video either. Podcasts are often a good option.
- Use regular, narrated slide shows “podcasts” with personal connections to yourself and students. Depending on the length of unit (semester or week-long), we produce either weekly or daily podcasts respectively. These are probably not strictly podcasts but podcasts in more general sense of regularly scheduled content available asynchronously online. [Strictly speaking, podcasts are typically defined as audio content available via a subscription service.] For the semester long TEEP courses, I use Apple Keynote to create my slides. I include lots of images and photos. Typically, I share a few things about my week and then do a mini-lesson, if needed, on the week’s content. Then I go over last week’s submitted work, going any points that seem to be confusing. I also summarize common themes in the content response assignment. I also drop in photos of learner’s work and may even say something about each photo (or video) or learner work. I end with a review of the week’s assignments. Note how it’s important to make an extra effort to try to connect with learners in multiple and different ways since it is asynchronous and you don’t have that regular, face to face contact. Here’s an example of a daily student podcast from the music unit. Note since this was daily, I did not have sufficient turn-around time to show and summarize student work.
Here’s a slide from a TEEP podcast, where I would show and talk about each students’ work (no audio in the example below but there was in the podcast).
- Respond quickly. Since there is not quick and frequent face to face social interactions online, responding to students quickly is important. I would include grading, answering email as the main ways. I have a TA monitor the learner discussions in TEEP classes and also answer first level tech questions quickly.
- Testing as a student. It is very handy to test your material as a student sees it. I asked our tech department to create a special student account for this purpose. We do the same thing in Canvas at Tufts. [Canvas is the full featured LMS we use at Tufts. ]
- Consistent, regular, format with clear expectations. All learners will benefit from consistent formats and clear expectations but be prepared to be bombarded with questions from middle school and younger students if you do not! Post a grading rubric so students are clear on how they are graded. Use Google Classroom assignments for all assignments. [Don’t have students post assignments in the stream.] Send comments and grade with the assignment tools. Also, note the grade tab to see results for class. Here’s a snapshot of how our Make Your Own Musical Instrument module is organized. Note that we have clear weekly topics and clear daily assignments. The general pattern each day was Podcast, Assignments, Comments Assignment.
At TEEP, our regular format is: podcast, reading or video content, reflection on content with learner comments, and hands on assignment with learner comments.
For assignments in Google Classroom, I always provide a Google Doc – Choose Make a Copy for Each Student so that each student gets a structured document with embedded directions. That way, they don’t have to flip between multiple tabs to see what they have to do. Note that I always fill in the due date so the student will know and be notified about upcoming deadlines. Also, the turn in directions are right there and are standardized but we keep a copy in a shared teacher google doc.
- Use learner to learner peer commenting. This article from Alice Keeler has a great technique for how to do peer commenting in Google Classroom. It’s not obvious (again, GC is not a full LMS, which would have this built in). We did find a few caveats. Doing middle school classes of 60 students, only 20 student works can be attached to an assignment so we just broke them up by last name. Last name is how you can select subsets of students to assign things to. Google Classroom does not have the concept of subgroup unfortunately. See the Friday comment assignments above. Also, some students were very anxious to do their commenting assignment right away. However, in this method, the teachers has to add the student google docs manually so it takes a while. Next time, I would make the commenting assignment the next day to give me a chance to load the student work. This method has students insert comments directly into the other students’ work, which promotes more specific, detailed, and meaningful comments. In contrast, in my view, having students post and comment on the stream encourages less detailed, summary comments, plus can be a confusing long, “stream” of comments and content.
Here’s an example of what it can look like.
- Use discussion questions. Many online courses, such as the ones I worked on for PBS Teacherline, had weekly discussion questions. The trick here is to come up with one deep question that uses higher level’s of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Avoid long lists of questions (question banks and low level factual questions). You want to have a question that will have many differing responses and reactions. Note that Google Classroom has a specific option for Discussion questions – + Create Question. There’s an option so that students can reply to each other.
- Use remote hands on activities. Don’t keep students sitting at the computer. Try to think of hands on activities they can do. This can be challenging since you can’t easily send home common materials that everyone will have. But this is precisely what we did with the Make Your Own Instrument module and we discovered everyone had something that could be used. For example, homes all had three glasses that could be filled with different amounts of water. Some students did much more!
- Keep everything short and sweet but not too short. Enough said!
Good luck and happy remote teaching! Hopefully, we will be back face to face soon!
I became interested in the determination of optimal engineering constraints in open-ended learning experiences when adapting a spaghetti bridge project, that I had previously taught online to elementary teachers, to middle and high school engineering students.
When I initially did not constrain the amount of pasta and glue, most students created very strong structures with large amounts of glue providing much of the structural support. This was especially true of middle school students and not as much for high school students, with one exception. When I previously taught this project to teachers, teachers also build traditional bridges with spaghetti trusses and used glue only to connect the beams. Let’s call this the minimal constraints case. See below for some middle school examples.
After I noticed that the bridges were basically indestructible and mostly made of glue, I decided to try and further constrain the problem to see if the results would be more in line with real bridges. When I constrained to 40 linguine and 2 glue sticks (and the addition of a rubric that included aesthetics and other considerations), the results were much more aesthetically pleasing and in line with actual bridges. Let’s call this the fixed constraints case. See below for minimally constrained (top) and fixed constraint bridge (bottom) from the same middle school team.
My next thought was to change from fixed constraints to a fixed cost where students could choose/buy materials based on what they had designed – so each piece of pasta has a value as well as each glue stick with the bridge required to support a certain amount of weight at the lowest cost. This makes the problem even more realistic in terms of providing cost based engineering constraints. High school students built a second spaghetti bridges under this fixed cost, variable materials case. Students built realistic bridges and furthermore were more “spare” than the fixed constraints middle school bridges, reflecting consideration of the cost constraint. See below for minimally constrained and fixed cost, variable materials bridges made by a high school student.
Here’s another example of a minimally constrained (bottom) and fixed cost, variable materials (top) bridges made by the same high school student.
Taking the fixed constraints case (but would also apply to fixed cost, variable materials case), we could theorize that as the constraints are made tighter, there would be a frustration point and the project would be too hard. Likewise, if the constraints were too lax, it would turn into the minimal constraints case. So I got to thinking about whether there was some optimal constraint that exists for engineering problems given to students. This is reminiscent of the notion of trade-offs in engineering.
I did a literature search of academic papers but could not find any previous research on this topic. I also consulted with two leading academics in the field, who reported they were unaware of any research on this topic. It would be interesting to try and set up some experiments to find the optimal constraints for different age students for this project. The research questions might be:
- What is the optimal constraints value in the fixed case that is not too strict (frustration) and not too lax (not realistic)?
- Should this differ for different students or teams to differentiate the project?
- At what age, should the most realistic fixed cost, variable materials case be used?
- What learning does or does not take place in each case and how does it differ?
I did capture some artifacts in my first go around on the project. The first was a question to high school students in their project documentation. Three students did not answer the question. Students reported that the more constrained bridge was harder to design and construct.
Question: compare and contrast the minimally constrained and fixed cost bridges both in terms of your engineering design process and the final result.
Student 1 (HC)
The minimal constraints bridge I paid little attention to the amount of materials I was using. I just used as much as I wanted until I thought it was as sturdy I could make it in the time given for construction. I used the glue very liberally to make the connections as strong as possible. For the constrained bridge, I more thoroughly planned out my design for it to be as strong as possible using the least materials. Also I only used as much glue as I needed as to not run out of glue and have to buy another.
Student 2 (LK)
Between my two bridges the first one was stronger and could support more. This is because we could use as many resources as we wanted and the second bridge we had a limited amount of resources so it was harder because we had to be cost efficient.
Student 3 (ML)
Both followed a similar rectangle design. But, the unconstrained one used too much glue. The unconstrained one would easily succeed.
In summary, I found that minimally constrained bridges didons not generally produce a realistic civil engineering experience. Younger students seemed less constrained by traditional notions of bridges and produced very creative, strong, glue heavy bridges while adults and high school students were less likely to do so. At this time, I am planning to use the fixed constraints case for middle school students and use the fixed cost, variable materials case for high school students. Further experiments are possible to further refine and answer the proposed research questions. I have four rotations per year of middle school students, which provides opportunities for further research and refinements.
In my Make Your Own Dragster unit, middle school students first calculate the velocity of a non-geared up robot car, in this case Riley Rover. They take three time measurements on a ten foot course. I observed that students do not have a common sense, deep understanding of the mathematics. My thesis is that this comes from years of largely doing calculations on worksheets removed from any real world context.
Example 1 – Average of 1.73, 1.73, 1.173
Students used calculator, made a mistake and got an answer that was not 1.73 and did not notice a problem. If students had an understanding of what average means, they would know that they did not need to calculate and the answer is 1.73.
Example 2 – Average of 2.78, 2.50. and 2.30
Students got an answer of 7.20 and did not notice a problem. Students with a conceptual understanding of average should have seen that their answer was not reasonable and the average should be 2 point something.
Example 3 – Students write answers like 2.434566 ft/sec and do not notice an issue.
Students should know that the measurement variation and errors make digits beyond one decimal point meaningless.
Of course, it was a great opportunity to discuss all these examples with the class.
Engineering really makes mathematics meaningful, useful, and ties it to the real world. The danger of years of mathematics education largely out of context is that students focus on getting the calculations right and not really understanding the concepts behind the calculations.
Chris Williams, Boys Varsity Coach, Frontier
Jordan Branson, Boys Varsity Coach, Pioneer
Sunday, April 14, 2019
12:00 PM to 2:30 PM
Frontier Regional High School Gym
Coach Williams will focus on: structuring practices to maximize repetitions so kids improve and perform consistently, keeping it fun, and keeping kids accountable.
Coach Branson will focus on evaluation and improvement of individual hitting, pitching, and fielding – finding strengths but also how to help kids improve technique and attitude.
Questions? email John Heffernan
3 Things I Learned (and I Am Still Learning) From My Dad
John Edward Heffernan, III (February 10, 1934 – January 20, 2019)
The first thing I learned from my Dad is to do things you are interested in. I learned many things from, many of which I still do, such as running, cross country skiing, building with wood. He learned all these, many of them also were not popular at the time. And he taught me that if you fall or make a mistake, learn from it, and get back up or try again.
If you go by my parents’ house now, you see his handiwork everywhere – signs, cutting boards, furniture, rock walls, tables, and coasters and I’m sure many of you are proud recipients of these things.
When I think back to my childhood, many memories center around my Dad. Playing catch in backyard is one, which we would do for hours. I realized later how hard that can be after a long day of work. He never pressured me to do team sports even though that was so important to him as a three-season varsity player in high school (baseball, basketball, and football) and a varsity football player in college for Northeastern. Though I was not a big sports kid growing up, now I keep in shape running and coach team sports!
He and my son Aidan were both big sports fan and they could talk for hours about sports. While I am happy to know most of the players on my favorite team like the Patriots and Red Sox, Aidan and Dad would start with the Patriots discussing the pros and cons of different players and what kind of season they were having, then they would move onto other pro teams. But it did not end there! Then they would start on their favorite college teams. Next came baseball and basketball!
I also remember much Dad time in the finished basement on Gordon Avenue with Colleen (before Tim) hanging out playing Rummy 500, eating oranges on paper towels, and eating peanut butter crackers, Dad doing crossword with tattered crossword dictionary at his side, watching TV shows together like Laugh-in, Wide World of Sports, Wild Kingdom, and the Munster’s. It was important time of just being together. Not doing but just being.
So, he taught me to love and just be with your kids. I was reminded of this even more by the photos that I found getting ready for the service. Look at the Christmas photo on second page of the program. There’s Dad just beaming at center of his family.
I had always thought my own vocation of being a teacher was from the teachers on mother’s side, my mother and grandmother, but I realized just now from looking at photos of Dad with his grandkids and me as a kid that it came from Dad too.
Looking at the photos of me and my Dad in France around 1961, that not all dads at the time played with their kids like that at the time. Cousins reminded me today that he was the fun uncle with white hair that got down on the floor and played with them.
When I got a text message (I was both dreading and expecting) to call my sister, I was checking out at the grocery store. A very attractive young women starting to chat me up and I knew Dad was channeling me. Dad was always popular with the ladies. We were amazed how al the nurses treated him and called him “dear” and “honey”. Even the hospice nurses at the end of his life (when he was no longer conscious) would say, “Oh, John, you are so handsome” or “John, your skin is so smooth.” So even though he was a handsome man and popular with the ladies but always loyal.
I was remined of that yesterday, when we observed two bobcats right in parents’ backyard for about an hour, a very uncommon occurrence. They were at different distances from each other but moved together as a couple.
Last night’s when we had dinner at his house, it was hard to see his iconic Red Sox hat nearby and not have him there. But he was there in spirit. Driving home from the grocery store the night he died, I felt an immense sadness but also a great sense of well-being as I witnessed the most amazing sunset clouds as if Dad was telling me that everyone was as it should be and that he had lived a long and full life.
Thank you for being here and I am sure many of you have similar stories and feelings I would love to hear.