Editor’s Picks 2015, No. 1: Three things great teachers do with technology

3 inspiring examples of how great teachers turn technology into relevance and make learning count

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016. Our No. one editor’s pick for 2015 is Tom Daccord’s visionary look at how great teachers, not technology, are the true transformation agents in the 21st century classroom. The piece nearly made our separate list of most popular stories. In a way, I’m glad it didn’t so we can shine new light on Daccord’s timeless suggestions for engaging, empowering, and connecting with learners through the power of technology.


Too often, we see teachers putting the proverbial cart before the horse. They find an app or tool they like, so they introduce it in their classroom. The students might find it cool and engaging—but if the teacher hasn’t defined why they’re using that tool, its integration has no clear, educational purpose.

If, instead, you begin with a learning goal in mind and choose apps and devise activities in support of it, then you’re on a path to meaningful technology integration.

To help educators develop a vision for using technology in their classrooms, here are a few examples of what great teachers do with these tools.

1. They empower students through creativity

Shawn McCusker has been teaching high school social studies for nearly two decades. For years, he would have his students demonstrate their understanding of the great industrial philosophers by writing a comparative essay.

Two years ago, Shawn was involved in an iPad pilot program, and he gave his students a choice in how they would demonstrate their knowledge: Students could write an essay, or they could tap the creative potential that existed in their iPads.

(Next page: How YouTube helped a shy student thriveand score a hit video)


Most Popular in 2015, No. 1: The app that lets you create Khan Academy-style videos in 60 seconds

How flipped educators can create video tutorials a la Khan in no time flat

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic). Venerable columnist and blended learning expert Peter West hit a home run with his intro to the app Snip, which is making video creation easier for students and teachers. It was our No. 1 most popular story this year by a long mile. Check out his related follow-up on creating flipped video in 60 seconds here.

P West Screen snip 2Blended learning and flipped learning just got a whole lot easier.

Anyone can now create learning resources for students in little more time that is required for a normal explanation of a topic.

  • Recording solutions to math problems — almost as quick as solving the problem on paper.
  • Highlighting important text, and explaining concepts along the way — a breeze.
  • Sketching, labelling and explaining diagrams with audio annotation — child’s play.
  • Providing personal feedback on a student’s work — super simple.
  • Taking a photograph of anything – an art work, an experiment, a building – and then drawing on it while explaining concepts — quick and easy.

The recordings can then be played on virtually any device, and are easily placed in a LMS or OLE (Online Learning Environment).

Thus, almost anything that I would normally write on paper to explain to a student I now do on my computer (a pen-based Windows tablet — in my case a Surface Pro 3). The time overhead is minimal, and students can replay the explanation whenever and wherever is needed, as many times as is needed.

It makes blended and flipped learning much easier, as these types of learning resources are now easy for anyone to make.

A Microsoft Garage project called Snip (not to be confused with the Snipping Tool) has been released. While still in the “preview” stage, it is stable and works well. It is quick and simple, and is effective for a large percentage of learning and teaching situations.

Download and install the app. The app then sits as a thin line at the top of the screen.

Tap or hover a mouse on this line and it opens to reveal a set of three tools. You can use the built in “whiteboard” (middle icon) or take a photo (icon on the right).

P West Snip main controls

The initial recording choices offered by Snip.

The majority of the time I annotate a clip of my computer screen (Note that the area that can be annotated in the Snip app is fixed). Click on the icon on the left to do this, and select an area of your screen. This can be a web page, a document, a worksheet, or anything that can be displayed on your screen. When writing an explanation, such as a Math problem or some text, I use OneNote to create colored, lined “paper.”

P West Snip screen 1

The Snip screen with ruled lines for writing.

P West Screen snip 2

The Snip screen with annotations on an image.

The area of the screen selected then appears as an image inside a window with some basic tools — pens of various colors, erasers and a record button.

Simply press the record icon and start writing and explaining. You can pause if you wish, and press the stop icon when you are done.

The simplicity of the tool is one of its major attractions. The functions provided make it easy for even a technology-wary teacher to understand and use effectively, and its capabilities are enough for a large percentage of teaching scenarios. (There are many more complex tools available that provide greater functionality and editing capabilities. This is not meant to compete with these tools.)

Once complete, you can share the recording in a number of ways.

I normally click the “Save” icon (at the top right of the window) and a .mp4 video file is produced. Other options are available, as shown in the screen shot.

P West Screen snip 3

The interface when a Snip has been recorded showing the save and sharing options.

I then load the video into the appropriate course in our OLE, where it can be used by all students wherever and whenever they wish.

How much extra time is needed to do this?

  • Opening the app – 1 second.
  • Selecting an area of the screen or taking a photo – 5 seconds.
  • Explaining the concept – This is time I would have spent anyway. This will also vary depending upon the task.
  • Pressing the “Stop” icon and saving the video as a .mp4 file – The amount of time varies. On my i5 Surface Pro 3, a 49 second “snip” took 12 seconds to convert and save as a .mp4 file. (If necessary, the resulting .mp4 video file can be converted using free conversion software to a smaller file.)
  • Loading the video into a page in my OLE – This depends on the speed of the internet connection. In this case it was 11 seconds.

The total time is less than 60 seconds. However, students now have another resource available online to assist learning, potentially providing hours of replays over coming semesters.

This combination of this Snip app and a digital ink-capable tablet with a fine-grained pressure sensitive digital pen has the potential to make the lives of teachers and students much better.

It also provides another valuable tool for teachers to transition to blended and flipped learning. It is a wonderful example of a simple technology dramatically enhancing learning.


Most Popular of 2015, No. two: The advanced Google searches every student should know

Google has amazing tools for finding school-worthy sources. Too bad most kids don’t know they exist

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. The second Alan November piece to crack the top ten (he had a third in the top fifteen) tackles a pervasive problem — students who graduate high school and enter college or their careers without adequate search skills.

google-search“Did he seriously just ask that? How old is this guy?” Well yes, I recently seriously just asked a group of students if they knew how to search Google. And yes, the students got a good laugh from my question.

“Of course I know how to use Google,” I have been told by every student to whom I have asked the question.

“Really? Let’s see. This won’t take long,” I promise.

The truth is that every student can use Google on some level. What is interesting to me is that when I interview students about their search strategies and I ask them if they have ever asked their teachers for help with a search the answer is almost always, “No”. What if our students are overconfident about their search skills?

If you watch your students use Google you will probably observe that most begin their search by simply typing the title of the assignment verbatim into Google (i.e., Iranian Hostage Crisis). They do this partly because this technique can yield satisfying answers to basic questions, and because in many cases they haven’t been explicitly taught to do anything else. It is the easy way out that does not require much in the way of critical thinking.

After their results pop up, most students will look only at the first screen of results, believing that those top hits contain everything they will need to complete their assignment. In many ways, this response is natural — it’s quick and easy. If they do not find what they are looking for within three tries they will likely give up and assume that Google cannot fulfill their request.

But what happens when a meaningful search requires more thinking than simply typing in the assignment?

Next page: Expert Google search strategies


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. two The ed-tech trends on the cusp of mainstream

First preview of K-12 Horizon Report notes big ed tech shifts

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). We’d be remiss if we didn’t include this analysis of the annual Horizon Report’s ed-tech trends, which provide a snapshot of what’s taking place in schools now and what to watch out for next year and beyond. Few surprises here: maker tech and more personal devices appear to continue their steady ascent.

horizon-trendsThis year, BYOD and makerspaces have their stars on the rise—they could be in 20 percent of classrooms by year’s end. And over the next few years, 3D printing, adaptive software, and even wearable technologies in schools could do the same, according to an advanced preview of this year’s K-12 Horizon Report, an annual trendsetting look at the current state of technology and learning produced by the New Media Consortium. Each year, the report confers with a panel of education experts and takes a close look at the trends, challenges, and underlying developments driving today’s education technology adoption and implementation.

The final product whittles dozens of emerging and established ed tech topics into just 18, arranged by category—the trends, challenges, and developments referenced above—and time to adoption (or, in the case of challenges, complexity of the problem and how close we are to solving it).

Now trending

The report’s list of trends serves as something of a snapshot of the current state of education technology adoption in schools. But it’s not all plucking out the hottest buzzwords—there’s a methodology behind it, according to Larry Johnson, Chief Executive Officer of NMC. “Our approach looks at when a trend will have its maximum impact in schools, and the degree of that impact,” he said. “Will it ‘flame out’ in a year or two (e.g. Second Life)?  Or will it persist (like mobile) for years, and continuously surprise us with its growing utility and capability?”

Next page: Deeper learning and flexible schools impact technology adoption


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. three: It’s time for every student to learn to code

Learning to code is about more than career readiness. It’s about helping students make sense of their digital world

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). This year coding was never far from the national conversation as states, districts, and classrooms took up the debate. In May, programmer Alice Steinglass with Code.org, which organizes the popular Hour of Code, issued her impassioned yet reasoned plea for every school and every student to learn the fundamentals of computer science as part of their education on the devices which will help shape their futures.

learn-to-code-orgRecently, there has been a lot of discussion around the importance of coding in the K-12 classroom. Should it be compulsory for all students? An elective? Reserved for those students considering a computer science major in college?

The answer may come down to supply and demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computing jobs and only 400,000 computer science students to fill those roles. This represents a gap of one million jobs that will go unfilled, and amounts to a $500 billion opportunity lost.

In 2015, when more and more schoolwork, from kindergarten up through college, is done in a digital environment, students need to know the fundamentals of how the system they are using functions. By incorporating coding and computer science into our schooling starting in elementary school, we can help close this gap and ensure we have enough individuals with the right knowledge and expertise to fill these jobs.

Next page: Coding inspires curiosity

[image courtesy code.org]


Most Popular of 2015, No. three: Everything you never knew about using Google in the classroom

Google Certified Teachers share tips and secrets for using Chrome, Docs, and more

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. It’s probably no coincidence that so many of the top ten most popular stories this year were Google-centric — through its suite of tools the company has made itself practically invaluable to today’s classroom. Here’s a rundown of all the Google add-ons, extensions, and hidden gems that can make classroom life easier, and maybe even more fun.

google-tipsDid you know you can see all your copy/paste history in Chrome in a click? Bookmark all your browser tabs at once? Create choose your own adventures in Google Slides?

More than half a dozen Google Certified Teachers recently descended on Palm Springs to share their favorite tips, tricks, add-ons, and extensions during a packed session at the Annual CUE 2015 conference. Each presenter shared a micro-presentation honing in on their top ways for teachers and students to make the most out of the Google ecosystem.

The session’s presenters included: Alice Chen, Jen Roberts, Catina Haugen, Lisa Nowakowski, JR Ginex-Orinion, Kevin Fairchild, Scott Moss, Jo-Ann Fox, and Jason Seliskar.

English teacher Alice Chen kicked off the presentation by sharing how teachers can create cool choose your own adventure games for students using Google Slides. “Basically, you want to make three layers” in the presentation, she said, so that students can click on their preferred choice and be taken automatically to a slide that corresponds to that choice. Chen has created a helpful template that guides users through the entire process.

Another English teacher, Jen Roberts, shared her favorite add-ons for Google Docs. Save as Doc, for example, easily converts information from a spreadsheet into a doc, a tool she has used to turn the answers for scholarship applications students wrote in a formulaic spreadsheet into a personalized, one-page doc. Doc to Form, another add-on, helps to “convert questions written on a Google Doc to a Google Form ready for people to fill out and answer,” Roberts has written. The process, which can be used to create quizzes out of docs with minimal formatting, is rather straightforward, she said. Although she did caution that, “You have to have a semicolon after each answer in a multiple choice,” to delineate where one answer ends and the next begins.



Editor’s Picks 2015, No. four: 4 things innovative districts do to improve graduation rates

Forward-thinking practices focus on college and career readiness

graduation-ratesAs the skills expected of today’s graduates change rapidly, school districts have to overhaul their thinking on what it means to be “college and career ready.” Conventional wisdom around when and where students learn, what knowledge they need to be successful, and who they are as learners is all rapidly changing, especially as technology becomes more prevalent in classrooms.

This is all top of mind for members of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, a coalition of around 57  forward-thinking districts and leaders across the country, who are committed to improving the opportunity to learn for all of their students through technology and research. We rounded up some best practices League members use to ensure students stay in school, get their degrees, and are prepared for success in their post-secondary endeavors.

Learning can happen anytime, anywhere

Geographic and socio-economic factors no longer have to be barriers to learning. Schools don’t even have to be limited by the confines of the school day. Piedmont City School District is a remote, rural part of northeast Alabama. Many students’ families could not afford computers, or even an internet connection. It is difficult for the 1,200-student district to offer STEM, foreign language or Advanced Placement courses year-round.

Yet every student in Piedmont is given a laptop in school and to take home and, through partnerships developed by the district, can access free or low-cost broadband 24/7. Students can take courses otherwise unavailable online, at home and even during the summer, earning valuable credits and skills. For students that fall behind, they can make up lost credits online and catch up to their peers. All students that take online courses have a teacher that guides their progress and keeps them on track.

Early college access for later success

Early exposure to higher learning is key to inspiring first-generation college students who may not view postsecondary education as an option. In Enlarged City School District of Middletown (N.Y.), where 75 percent of students are low-income, high school students can take college-level courses through a partnership with Syracuse University. The courses are free and conducted in Middletown by certified adjunct professors.

Owsley County Public Schools, a small rural district in Kentucky where unemployment rates are well above the national average, established partnerships with several local colleges, including Hazard Technical and Community College, the University of Pikeville, and Morehead State University, to offer dual-credit courses to students at Owsley County High School.

Vancouver Public Schools (Wash.) recently open iTech Prep, which is co-located on a branch campus of the the University of Washington. High school courses are held in university buildings and classrooms and students can start earning college credits before they graduate.

Provide real-world opportunities

The type of learning and work environments students will experience after they graduate resemble the traditional “sage-on-the-stage,” textbook-driven model of teaching less and less. Providing meaningful connections to real-world opportunities is another way districts are engaging their students.

Utica Community Schools, located in the heart of Michigan’s auto industry, offers specialized high school programs directly aligned with workforce development needs, including a center for science and industry and a center for advanced math. Classrooms resemble manufacturing labs and makerspaces and students spend some of their week on-site at local internships.

Blue Valley Public Schools (Kans.) created the Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a facility that resembles a modern professional setting more than a school building. The curriculum at CAPS — which spans biosciences, business and technology, engineering, human services, and medicine and health care — is developed by industry leaders and many classes are taught by full-time professionals. Students are expected to participate in mentoring and internships. (Check out this inspiring video of CAPS students changing the life of a disabled student.)

And in Spartanburg School District 7, students can earn an associate’s degree while still in high school, which increases employment opportunities for students who may not be bound for a four-year college or university.

New skills for a new economy

Today’s economy requires skills that yesterday’s curriculum often cannot provide. South Fayette Township School District, a district just outside of downtown Pittsburgh, is creating opportunities for new skills by engaging students in practical coding and making experiences as early as elementary school. Rather than offer computer science as an after-school program or elective, South Fayette involves all students by weaving computational thinking into each subject.

For instance, in elementary physical education class, one student might hop on the climbing rock wall while another “programs” her to the destination at the top, with directions of “move two blocks left” or “one block up.” It teaches students logic and that there are processes behind everything. By high school, many students are developing their own apps.

This is just a handful of new methods that the nation’s leading school districts are using to stay ahead of what awaits their graduates. Browse more stories practices and strategies of League of Innovative Schools members.


Most Popular in 2015, No. four: 8 things every teacher can do to create an innovative classroom

Innovation can’t be tested or graded — but it can be built up

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. How to create a more interesting, innovative classroom was a theme of many of the top stories this year, perhaps as educators, finally comfortable with technology begin to branch out into ways into using it to strengthen higher-order thinking skills and create projects unthinkable five or ten years ago.

innovative-classroomInnovation is a trait that I desperately want to instill in my students, and many teachers I talk to seem to share that goal. In the current climate of high stakes testing, state standards, and prescribed learning outcomes, it can be incredibly difficult to foster an atmosphere of innovation and creativity that inspires students. But rest assured, it is possible.

Here, I outline eight basic principles for the “Innovative Classroom,” around which I designed a middle school course called Physical Computing. Some of the projects and tools are specific to that course, but I think the fundamental ideas could be applied to almost any course at any level.

  1. Give students a problem that is both interesting and authentic. There is no such thing as a problem that is going to be interesting to every kid. This means that a project has to be flexible enough for students to tailor it to their own interests. It also means that teachers need to take the time to learn about their students’ interests. Authenticity comes from using real tools to tackle problems that don’t have their answers printed at the back of the book. Ideal projects dictate some general parameters and tools, but leave the specific problem definition up to the student. Some examples of interesting, authentic projects with built-in flexibility include:-Design a musical instrument that you can play without using your mouth or hands.
    -Choose a challenging terrain and design a vehicle that can conquer it.
    -Create a sculpture that incorporates both light and motion.

    Next page: How to motivate creative thinking


Most Popular of 2015, No. five: These 6 questions determine if you’re technology rich, innovation poor

Think your school is innovative with tech? Answer these 6 questions and prepare to reassess

Ed. note: We’re counting down the top stories of 2015 based on popularity (i.e. website traffic) to No. 1 on Dec. 31. In addition to being one of the most popular stories we’ve published this year, this piece also has the distinction of being one of the most important. Alan November challenges educators to examine their lessons through a new lens — are they really demanding the most creative, innovative work from students through their lessons? It’s a good question, and as November points out: in the digital age, good questions are the new answers.

innovation-questionsAt the start of a webinar I recently conducted for school leaders, I asked attendees if they felt they were leading an innovative school as a result of the implementation of technology. More than 90 percent responded that they were. At the end of the webinar, when polled again, only one leader claimed to be leading an innovative school.

The complete reversal was due to a presentation on the six questions that you will read about in this article—a list of questions that were developed to help clarify for educators the unique added value of a digital learning environment, and whether their assignments were making the best use of this environment.

Want to test your own level of innovation? If you answer no to all six questions when evaluating the design of assignments and student work, then chances are that technology is not really being applied in the most innovative ways. The questions we ask to evaluate implementation and define innovation are critical.

(Beyond SAMR: Special note to those of you applying SAMR. Many educators who believed their assignment to be at the highest level of SAMR have discovered that the answer can be no to all six of the transformation questions.)

(Next page: the 6 questions and how to shape your lessons for innovation)


Editor’s Picks 2015, No. five: Journey to the student-centered makerspace

Explore a collaborative makerspace where students design the space and take charge of their learning

Ed. note: This year the editors selected ten stories we believe either highlighted an important issue in 2015 and/or signaled the beginning of an escalating trend or issue for 2016 (look for No. 1 on Dec. 31). The modern makerspace exploded this year, popping up in schools across the country and snagging a spot on the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report as a trend to watch. In this piece, educator Abbe Waldron takes the concept further, using students to lead the transformation.

makerspace-studentsWhether you know it or not, your students are already making things outside of school. From digital animation and programming to video production and duct tape crafts, it’s surprising the number of outlets students have found to vent their creativity.

So I learned when my school, Wamogo Regional High, decided to harness this expression productively by designing a student-centered makerspace for collaboration, creation, and problem-solving. We wanted a place where students could access materials, equipment and supplies to explore their interests and take on new challenges. And we wanted to create an environment where students could extend their learning, take risks, and build capacity as leaders.

As we designed our makerspace, it was important to consider how our program would fit with both the established core values of our school and our 21st century learning expectations, such as information literacy, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, and community and civic responsibility. We knew it all began with the students.

I met with as many students as possible at first and created surveys to collect information on their interests. Students were an invaluable resource in putting together our makerspace and helping me choose the tools and supplies we needed to get started. Of course the students were extremely excited about the prospect. “I think this will have so much impact on kids,” one student told me. Another chimed in, “If we could do this all day, I would live at school!”

Next page: Turn students into mentor leaders