10 Tools to Get Started with Blended Learning

I'm often asked by teachers how to get started doing Blended Learning. My answer is always "why do you want to try Blended Learning?" Rather than trying to be cheeky or coy about my practice, I'm trying to begin Read more

It's not 1892 anymore

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But why? -It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially Read more

Advanced Placement: A Race to Nowhere?

"Honestly, the best thing to do would be to get rid of the AP Program, and just design a course that prepares students for the college-level experience." A few nights ago, we hosted a screening of the film Race to Read more

Photos Across the Curriculum

ITSC '11 Mid-Day Three My last day at ITSC 2011 began with a high-energy session by Dean Shareski (@shareski) and Alec Couros (@courosa). "Photos Across the Curriculum" challenged participants to consider how valuable images are in 21st century education. Dean's Read more

History Education in a World of Information Surplus

In light of the realities of the 21st century, I think all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught Read more

Math is dead. Long live Mathematics!

Recently I watched a TED talk which got me thinking about Mathematics in a way I hadn't before. To cut straight to the video, scroll down. Let me be clear at the start of this post: I've had a difficult Read more

Blended Learning

10 Tools to Get Started with Blended Learning

I’m often asked by teachers how to get started doing Blended Learning. My answer is always “why do you want to try Blended Learning?” Rather than trying to be cheeky or coy about my practice, I’m trying to begin a conversation about the value of moving learning online. If you haven’t determined why you’re doing it, your attempts will be unfocused and confusing for students. So my suggestion is that you consider your goals – what I refer to as the “verbs” (connect, network, collaborate, cooperate, create, etc.) – and then create the Blended Learning experiences that fit.

Once you know what you’re trying to do, here are the 10 tools I recommend to get started with Blended Learning.

1. For those of you who don’t have a LMS (Learning Management System) at your school to host your online learning activities, I highly recommend Edmodo. It can do most everything that an expensive LMS can do, but is free for individual teachers. An interesting option with Edmodo is the ability to connect with other teachers’ courses. Edmodo has iOS and Android apps, so it’s a good mobile solution too.

2. If I were looking to begin a course from scratch and wanted a LMS, I’d probably choose Schoology. Envisioned as more of a social learning network than the typical LMS, Schoology looks and feels like Facebook, but with the powerful features teachers want. Students report they don’t want their classes interfering with their Facebook life, and Schoology gets the most out of students already well-honed social networking skills in their academic life. Best of all, it’s free. There is a fee for adding “power features”, but prices are fairly low.

3. WordPress is my favorite tool. Reading and writing are more important than ever in the 21st century, and blogging allows students to improve not only as writers but also as readers and thinkers. WordPress is the platform of choice for professional bloggers, and I think it’s one all students should learn. (If you have Google Apps for Edu, Blogger is a good alternative.) WordPress.com is free, and hosted for you, making it easy to start blogging in minutes. With WordPress.org, you can self-host your blog, and customize it a thousand ways. [NOTE: WordPress can also be a powerful LMS! For details, contact me!]

4. Evernote is a complete information management system that my students and I can’t do without. This free tool allows you to take notes in many formats, including voice and handwritten, and stores them on your devices or in the cloud. Evernote has excellent apps for all mobile devices, and users with an account can sync information across all devices instantaneously. My students keep all their research information in Evernote, and can make these public for me and others to view. Evernote also has “clipping” plug-ins for browsers that make capturing information super easy.

5. Twitter is both an excellent tool for connecting students and teachers, as well as a valuable learning resource! My students and I use Twitter as our base social networking platform for our Personal Learning Networks, bringing in the collective wisdom of crowds (up to half a billion users now!). Teachers can use Twitter to follow leading innovative educators, and to follow “hashtags” that fit their interests – #isedchat, for example, is a weekly chat of hundreds of independent school teachers. Twitter can be a great tool for “backchanneling” during lectures or research projects, allowing students to ask questions that many people can answer. (I have my students create accounts they use for academic purposes – part of building a positive digital footprint!) To start building your PLN on Twitter, follow me (@MikeGwaltney), and find more Educators on the Twitter4Teachers Wiki. Read my recommendations for how to use Twitter in your class.

6. Use Screencast-o-Matic to produce instructional videos. Screencasts are also a great way to answer the same question time after time after time.  Many teachers who have flipped their classes use Screencast-o-Matic to record their  content delivery videos (less than 10 minutes apiece, typically). While Screencast-o-Matic is a free service and does not require  software download, the $15/year Pro Account is well worth the price.  This small fee gives you access to easy-to-use editing tools, storage and organization of recordings, and more efficient ways to upload videos to YouTube (if desired).

7. If you have ever been frustrated that your bookmarks from one computer aren’t available on another, Diigo is a solution.  At its most basic, Diigo allows you to access all of your bookmarks from anywhere on the web.  There are a variety of toolbars and shortcuts to make this process seamless.  Other great features include the ability to tag, highlight, and annotate webpages that you bookmark.  Your notes appear when you re-visit those page and can be aggregated by visiting your list on Diigo’s website.  Perhaps the most powerful feature are those that support collaboration and sharing.  Your bookmarks and lists can be made public or shared with a defined group.  Group members are notified when new sites are added to a list and comments can be read by others that visit the page. Diigo also has numerous groups you may join (such as Classroom 2.0), making it another great tool to grow your PLN.

8. Voicethread is one of the most popular online learning tools in use today. Teachers may create voicethreads for students to record comments demonstrating knowledge or problem-solving methodology; students may create voicethreads to tell a story or hold an asychronous conversation with classmates; the possibilities are endless! Post images or video for others or have them create their own threads as an alternate presentation and collaborative tool. Art teachers use it to post images of student works and perform peer critiques.  Dance instructors and physical education teachers and coaches could post videos of rehearsals and games for analysis and feedback. Voicethread has an educator version that is reasonably priced, providing greater privacy and easier account management.

9. Google Drive is “a place where you can create, share, collaborate, and keep all of your stuff. You can upload and access all of your files, including videos, photos, Google Docs, PDFs and beyond.” (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/…) Google Docs is built into Google Drive, perfect for creating and collaborating in real time on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You can add and reply to comments and receive notifications when other people comment on shared items. You can get started with 5GB of storage for free.

10. TodaysMeet is a great tool for creating “backchannels” during class meetings or as a chat room for students to use asynchronously.  No accounts or sign-up is necessary.  Name your room, choose how long you’d like it available, then send the link to whomever you’d like to have access.  It’s also great for public note-taking, brainstorming, etc.

This is a Top 10 list, but a bonus tool I can’t ignore is Wikispaces. I’ve used Wikispaces with my students for years as a site to host student-created work and for allowing students to collaborate on large projects. For a sample, check out our AP U.S. History wikispace: http://apush-wiki-marlborough-school.wikispaces.com/

Many thanks to my colleagues Craig Luntz and Melissa Wert for collaborating with me on this list as co-facilitators in our OSG professional development course on Blended Learning.

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Blended Learning, Education Technology, Online Learning, Web 2.0 Tools 6 Comments

Walled in on the web? Limits of the LMS.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the pedagogical implications of teaching within a Learning Management System. Mostly I’ve been thinking about how limiting the walls of LMS are, and how they keep learners apart. Though we in the K-12 sector often talk about online learning’s promise as allowing us to “tear down the walls”, I’m concerned that when we build our courses inside an LMS, we find we’re just as locked inside four walls as when we’re stuck in our brick-and-mortar rooms.


Some years ago, I was charged with leading introductory workshops for faculty on how to use our school’s new LMS. Teachers reacted as you would have expected – about a third were eager to play with the shiny new tool, another third were skeptical but willing to try, and a third probably thought I was just another technology snake oil salesman. In all the feedback from those sessions, what I never heard, interestingly, was how limiting the LMS was, though that’s what I was thinking the whole time I was teaching teachers how to use the new platform. I think because so few teachers were already connecting their students to other learners outside their rooms, the idea that they were just moving into another walled space, albeit online, never occurred to them.

The pedagogical decisions we make to connect learners have historically been informed by physical room design and ideas about class size. If the room could hold 30, and the school was open to classes of that size, teachers fashioned their teaching around connecting 30 learners. The same went for classes of 16 or 40. This is no different in the online LMS – as many students as have accounts and are enrolled in a “course” can be connected and the teaching model is built for this. These connections are often homogenous, as learners are almost always the same age, from the same place, with similar cultural and educational backgrounds. Though different perspectives exist, the value of these connections is quite limited.

The promise of the web is the ability to connect many people to share ideas. One of the best vision statements I’ve seen recently suggests education should connect people, ideas, and cultures to advance knowledge, create solutions, and enhance meaning. For this, would it work to put students behind walls in a homogenous grouping? Of course not. To really connect people in ways that are transformative, they must be able to interact with people, ideas, and cultures not enrolled in the course, and not in the LMS.

Stephen Downes today posted an excellent video, in which he explains the differences between LMS and Personal Learning Environments (PLE). There are many important differences between the two, but the element I’d like to highlight is the openness of PLE. When teachers empower students to establish their own learning networks, the walls of the classroom do in fact come down.

With PLE, students work with a variety of Web 2.0 tools, as Downes points out in the video:

screenshot from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDwcCJncyiw&feature=colike

Because students are using tools that are open on the web, they can connect with other learners outside their institution. In this diagram, you can see how this could work for students from schools, and autonomous individuals on the web:

screenshot from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDwcCJncyiw&feature=colike

For this reason, and others which I haven’t gone into in this post, the decision to adopt a LMS is one that should be made thoughtfully. From the perspective of connecting learners, a school might be better served by educating the faculty to support the development of student Personal Learning Environments.

I encourage you to watch Stephen’s video:

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Online Learning, Schooling, Web 2.0 Tools 7 Comments

How to Make a Class Backchannel

Yesterday I posted a “Twitter Matrix” for education, which generated a fair amount of buzz in the micro-blogging world. A few people sent me messages asking if I could explain how I make my class backchannel, so here goes.

First of all, I think of the backchannel as the conversation that might otherwise normally happen in class within students’ minds, or between each other. It’s the communication that happens between two or more students about their experience of class and their own learning. To be clear, classes have always had backchannels of conversation, the difference now ist that technology allows us to put them to better use. When these conversations become public, students and teachers have an opportunity to learn from each other, and questions get answered, and issues get addressed.

Here are two ways that I have used Twitter as a backchannel:

1. Make a Class Account. This year, I created a “LIVE” Twitter account for my US History class. On our private class wiki, I shared the log-in information, and students are allowed to access the account during class. Students can post anything they wish in this backchannel, and we all see it.

An advantage to this common account is anonymity – it’s impossible to know who posted since we’re all using the same acct. It’s been my experience that some students will ask questions or make comments that could be very helpful only if they don’t risk embarrassing themselves. Of course anonymity also means freedom to be malicious with the class Twitter account, so I highly recommend a discussion of netiquette and integrity before giving this privilege to students.

Creating a common class account is easy. Just think of a name, create the Twitter account linked to YOUR email address, choose a simple password (school name?), and share the log-in information on your private class website.

2. Make a class hashtag. When I first joined Twitter, I thought hashtags (# + short term, eg “#edchat”) were created by Twitter or something, and wasn’t quite sure how they worked. Well, they’re really easy – anyone can make a hashtag by simply putting # in front of a word or set of characters. Hashtags allow you to locate student tweets by searching the term. It’s Twitter’s way of organizing zillions of tweets.

In my class, I ask all my students to create an “academic” Twitter account, (they may not wish to share a personal account with class, if they have one) and then each unit I choose a hashtag that we can all use to post comments and questions (ex. #coldwar). We can then each search for this tag and see what we’re all posting and comment back and forth. I’ve also created a widget for our private class wiki that shows the results of our backchannel, so we don’t all have to search Twitter.

By using these public hashtags, we also involve people outside our class who may have common interests. If we tweet for a week or two with the tag #coldwar, we automatically find many collaborators on Twitter that may wish to answer questions, and we also learn from others who are sharing their ideas. Social Learning happens!

There’s plenty more to talk about on this topic of class backchannels, and certainly Twitter isn’t the only way to go. If you have other ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment here, or tweet me @MikeGwaltney. And why not use the tag #classbackchannel? :)

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Blended Learning, Collaboration, Communication, Education Technology, Web 2.0 Tools 6 Comments

Twitter for Education

UPDATE: See also my post “How to Make a Class Backchannel”

I know many teachers and are exploring using Twitter as a learning tool, both for themselves and for their students. Administrators are imagining ways it could be helpful for staff development and for communicating with stake-holders. Here’s a visual to help focus the thinking a bit (click through for larger version):

I ran across this Twitter Matrix about a year ago on Mark Sample’s blog and it really helped me clarify my thinking about how I wanted to use Twitter to enhance student learning. I was clear that I didn’t want to use it just to be using it – if it wasn’t going to lead to greater learning, it was just going to be more noise for students.

I’ve been getting good results using Twitter as a backchannel during class, allowing me to engage with students in new ways. Those that aren’t ready to comment out loud during class will frequently post to the backchannel, allowing me a new way to check for understanding. And because they can post questions there that I see in the last few minutes of class, I can answer them before they leave, meaning no student leaves with misunderstandings that embed in their brain before they return the next day.

If you follow the link to Mark’s blog, you’ll notice he believes Twitter acts as a “snark valve” because tweets are “unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well.  The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse — using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.”

How will you use Twitter? I hope the matrix leads to creative ideas. And if they do, kindly tweet me @MikeGwaltney, or leave a more lengthy comment here on my blog.

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Blended Learning, Education Technology, Networking, Web 2.0 Tools 1 Comment

ITSC ’11 Day Two Wrap

Day Two proved to be just as rewarding as the first day of ITSC.

After the bar had been set high by Jeff Utecht in the morning workshop, Scott McDonald and Scott Elias had work to do to impress, post-lunch. McDonald’s session was called “Making Meaningful Movies”, and focused on getting the most out of digital video-making assignments. Here are his tips:

  • Keep it Simple.
  • Write Clear Learning Goals linked to Curriculum. “Start at the End”
  • Plan How to Share Movies at the beginning of the Project. Get an authentic audience.
  • Teach How to Search for Sources, or Make a Source List.
  • Be Clear about Source Citing requirements. Require they go in the Template or Storyboard.
  • Practice Demonstrating Steps in iMovie (or the application you use) BEFORE class.
  • Use Keynote or PPT to Storyboard. (Shot Sheet). Students have a Product before the Movie.

At 3:45, Scott Elias led a session called “Creating and Maximizing Learning Networks”, which presented some important research behind why networked learning is so powerful. Scott is a new Middle School principal in Fort Collins, CO, planning research for a doctorate in networked learning, so he brought a real ethos to the conversation – not that a guy with nearly 3,000 followers and more than 16,000 Tweets needs more street cred.

Being in Scott’s session was like being a kid in a candy shop – everything he was saying resonated, and fit some of my strongest current interests about learning. But Scott pushed the envelope a little bit, as he asked us to challenge some trendy notions about social networking and learning. Take for example our discussion of “hyper-connectedness” (click the image):

Group consensus on this topic seemed to be that our “always on” connectedness is neither good nor bad, but a reality of life today. Perhaps the most important thing here is awareness of it, and attention to its consequences. It was a great topic for discussion, and one that Scott challenged us to take home to our colleagues.

Besides picking up some references to academic studies about learning and social networks, I left with some ideas for reflection:

“Information by itself is meaningless – Information only takes meaning in the context of the social practices of the communities that give it cultural life.” We pick up so many bits of data through our networks, but how much of it is out of context and consequently useless? Perhaps the constant stream of information coming at educators from their PLNs seems relevant (and perhaps it all is), but it lacks meaning unless we can recreate the conditions from which it originated. Further, how many of us have stopped a colleague in the hallway at school and said “I heard this from so-and-so on Twitter” only to see eyes glazing over? Lacking the contextual understanding of Twitter as more than sharing about dinner plans or Justin Bieber, information coming from tweets is often seen as irrelevant.

“To move from social networking to social learning requires that the learner knows his colleague’s knowledge is authoritative, valuable, and available when needed.” We assume that if we put students together in groups, whether online or face to face, that social learning will result. But the truth is that the learners must be willing to “hear” and retain what their colleagues share. That means relationships of common interests and practices must be fostered and maintained. Of course, this is no different than what we know of pre-online networking. And consider this in light of the typical Professional Development events for teachers – some obvious insights here for why those events often seem like wasted time! (we considered the characteristics of good PD via chalkboard – click the image below)

“People are using technology to get what they need from each other, often bypassing traditional institutions and systems.” How much more obvious can this be than in 2011 with at least two political regimes falling in North Africa via the power of social networking? People will get the information they want via their online networks regardless of our efforts to prevent them. So what are the implications for teaching? Do we really believe that we can be the gatekeepers of information? Can we prevent students from reading, seeing, or creating media? No way. Take the other side of the coin – our access to information is limited only by the size of our networks. As our online networks grow, virtually all human knowledge is available quickly and cheaply (“the cost of information is fast approaching zero” ~@scottelias). Gone are the days when certain privileged groups held access to the power that knowledge brings. As should be obvious, democratization follows.

Another great day at #ITSC11. As you can see, this conference is not about technology.

Thanks for reading. I welcome your comments.

Posted on by Mike Gwaltney in Conferences, Networking, Web 2.0 Tools 3 Comments