CACTES

Technology Integration for teachers

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Recommending Technology for Educators

As a technology trainer, one of the questions I most often get asked is, which application do I get for…, which web site should I use for…, or which technology should I use for….

Most times I give them one or two applications, web sites or technology recommendations. What I really want to say is something that often produces a confused and disappointed look.
I don’t want to tell you which application, web site or technology to use. I want you to learn how to select the best application, web site or technology tool.
The best way I can tell any teacher how to select a technology for content integration is to walk through the process I go through in selecting a technology.
I first begin with the concept I want to teach. Notice I didn’t say project or final product. You should never choose a technology based on a project or final product. Once the project or product is complete then so is the technology. Once you focus on a concept you have a much better chance on selecting the appropriate technology that can be used to effectively teach a concept and help students master that concept. It is also important to make your concept less specific. Although sometimes it can’t be avoided. It is also important to bear in mind the levels of Bloom’s. Your choice of application might at first address the lower levels of Bloom’s, but then you will need to select another application to address the higher levels. Addressing the higher levels is always a goal. It would be nice to find technology that addresses all the levels, but that is rare. Even with a multi-purpose knife you can still only use a knife to cut effectively. A knife is not very good for tightening a screw.
Let’s say you want an application, web site or technology to help teach the concept of fractions. I would begin by searching with the keyword fractions. Sounds easy. Most of the time that’s all you need. There are so many resources out there that you are bound to find something. Devices like iPad make it easy, because Apple has many applications in an easy to find location called the App Store. The same is true for Apple computers. There is an App Store that provides a one stop shop for many applications that can be used on an Apple computer. Windows computers have many options but unfortunately they are not all in a centralized location. You might try downloads.com or sourceforge.net
Searching for web resources is much easier. They are usually not device specific. Although, in a web search you might want to be a little more specific than fractions. You might want to use keywords like fraction software, or fraction software elementary. If you want a web site you might search for teaching fractions or fraction games.
This process can take some time. This is where teachers don’t want to spend the time necessary. They want something picked and delivered to them. This doesn’t work. I once heard of a teacher that wanted to teach a summer course using one great application she heard about for the iPad. This was disastrous. She had no idea how to use this one tool for even the most basic parts of a lesson. This was because she heard of the tool and all it could do, but didn’t bother to really understand the application and how it worked.
I can’t blame teachers for wanting something picked and delivered to them. Their time is precious and they already have a lot heaped on them. Taking the time really makes the difference.
A teacher might ask me to recommend a good presentation tool. I can recommend Keynote, PowerPoint or Prezi, but the teacher may not  know what to do with the tool. When someone hands you a tool it doesn’t mean you will know what to do with that tool or how to use it. A physical world example might help. Let’s say you ask me for the tool that would help you fix a squeaky door hinge. I might recommend a screw driver, a can of lubricant or a pair of pliers. This might help but only you know which tool will work best. The appropriate tool depends on the reasons for the squeaky hinge. A hinge might squeak because it is rusty, broken, miss aligned or not properly secured to the door or wall. You see that my recommendation might give you a set of tools to use, but only you can decide which will solve the problem. Solving a problem does not come with a set of tools. It comes from understanding the problem.
I didn’t say it would be fast or easy. I go through this process a lot and find myself spending minutes or hours finding the right tools. When going through a search it is important to keep an open mind. Don’t through out a result because it doesn’t do one thing you want. Hold on to it. It often comes back to you in, the teachers lounge as you slowly contemplate different ways to teach for differentiation. This is when you realize the value of that gem you almost passed over. On my computer I have over two hundred applications. I collect these applications because I know that one day I will need one of them to help solve a problem or produce a product. I download and learn how to use each so that I understand what it does, how it does it, and when this application would serve me best. It’s like having a tool box filled with screwdrivers, wrenches, and other specialized tools.
Most of the applications you find will focus on basic skills like, matching items, selecting an answer from several choices, solving a problem through a process or using interactive games and tools. This is great. This should be your first step. You can only truly climb a mountain when you begin at the base and look at your options for getting to the top.
As I said earlier. Most of your initial searches will lead to sites or applications that focus on the lower level of Bloom’s. If you’re lucky some of the applications will help students get up to the third level of Bloom. This would be the point where your students are sketching, solving, showing, organizing, and producing. Getting to the upper levels will take a little more effort in your thinking of technology integration, and less work in finding the right tool. It seems reciprocal. The higher you go on Bloom’s the easier it is to find software and resources. This is because most software is designed for, and used by individuals that operate in those higher levels.
Now let’s take a look at Bloom’s higher level objectives and discuss the software that can get us there. You’ll be surprised. If you’re in education, the levels of Bloom are probably very well-known. If not, here is a link to a Wikipedia entry for Bloom’s Taxonomy. The goal is to begin in the lower levels for basic learning and knowledge acquisition. The goal is to take students to the highest levels of Bloom. This is where students acquire long-lasting internalized learning. This is where true comprehension exists. This is where students have the opportunity to take what they have learned, and think of it in different ways. In higher levels students are thinking about what they know, and how it can be applied in a variety of contexts both concrete and abstract. Most of what is done at this level has more to do with the mind and less to do with the technology tool. At this point the technology becomes a tool in the hands of an apprentice and eventually one of a craftsman.
The tools that are best suited for this higher level of Blooms are the ones we use everyday. Basic tools like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and databases are the corner stones that lead us to the higher levels. When a student uses a word processor he or she needs to think deeply about the information to be conveyed. The same can be said for presentation tools. With these tools the student must internalize the knowledge and be able to convey it to others effectively. Most often it needs to be conveyed to a variety of audiences in a variety of formats. This is where the student’s understanding really hits the road.
Tools like spreadsheets and databases require students to develop meaning from information. Spreadsheets and databases provide the opportunity for students to manipulate data in a variety of ways. This manipulation often can bring insights from the information that goes beyond the information itself. These tools aren’t very fancy but they are the hallmark for the majority of the work done by most people. Think of it this way. The greatest of novels, movies or music were not reliant on a specific application or technology. These concepts took their seed and developed in the mind of the creator. The tool was a vehicle for its delivery.
If these tools aren’t cool or neat then you can use extensions of these tools. Some of these tools include blogs, wikis, forums, web pages or social media. Presentation tools include Prezi or Slide Rocket. Alternate presentation tools that use advanced media include videos. Digital cameras and media editing tools can be used to synthesize traditional communication into highly visual components. All of these tools extend the seeds of information processing, thought, and imagination.
There it is. I don’t have a list of web sites or applications, and now you should understand why.
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Professional Development e-book Companion

In previous postings I talked about support documentation and e-books. I didn’t feel that full-blown e-books provided the best form of support documentation. I felt they were too bloated with information, and the crucial information teachers wanted, was buried deep within.

Recently I’ve begun to develop e-books as a companion piece to professional development. These e-books replicate my professional development for teachers with all the essential information. The e-book is available to teachers at any time during the training. They can download a PDF version onto their computer and an EPUB version if they have an e-book reader.

This helps me in several ways. It helps teachers follow along with the e-book and use the step by step instructions to help them perform a process. During professional development with technology I can encounter issues where a teacher’s computer is not working properly. The software version might not be up to date. The browser is missing a plugin or any other host of issues can arise. In a situation like this a teacher often feels left out and a little frustrated. Some teachers not familiar with technology might work a little slower than others and fall behind.

The presentation might entail a series of steps and instructions. Some teachers might think the steps and instructions are overwhelming. At times they are so busy writing down all the steps, they fail to see the complete picture. If they don’t write down the steps they feel they might not be able to replicate what we have done. I’ve seen many of their notes and even I would have trouble following what they wrote down. This is where I feel an e-book would help many teachers and would be an excellent companion to any professional development.

Ebooks are my version of making a PowerPoint available to an audience. There are, of course, more advantages with an e-book over a PowerPoint. With an e-book participants can book mark pages. They can highlight information or type comments. A table of contents helps participants jump to sections they consider important. E-books are searchable. Like PowerPoint, an e-book can contain images, audio or video. They also contain links to external sources.

EBook companions help to emphasize procedures, protocols and best practices. With an e-book companion I feel comfortable leaving teachers with a professional development they can integrate today and support information to help them tomorrow. Ebooks take longer to produce but they are one of those items you can use over and over again. They provide a wealth of information and resources.

Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 3

When preparing to write a support document I often look at the essential steps needed to complete a task. Most times the task can be straight forward from beginning to end. Other times the task requires the user to be aware of some additional information that is needed before beginning. The end-user must be made aware of the minimum requirements to complete the task as well as the level of expertise required. In our district this is important.

Our district has thousands of computers and thousands of different configurations. Some computers have Windows XP. Others have Windows 7. Two thirds of the computers are Apple and run some version of the OS X operating system. Software versions vary, and not all teachers or computers are running the most current version of a software. All teachers are provided with a laptop with the same operating system. A third have Windows 7, and two-thirds have Apple with Snow Leopard. Even with the same operating system, not all teachers have the same updates because of one reason or another. You can start to see the challenges we face daily.

In our district, teacher computers are locked down so that applications can only be installed with administrator access. The key person with the administrator password at a campus is often the campus technologist. He or she is the only one that can install software. The teacher is made aware of this before we begin the process. In such cases we direct the teacher to seek the campus technologist to perform the operations needed. In such a case the directions are directed toward the campus technologist.

Most support issues fall within the skill set and access level of teachers. There are circumstances where we try to find alternatives to help teachers accomplish a task where administrator access is required. With the advent of web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies, this provides us greater opportunities to provide support for teachers.

We try to find these alternatives, because most campuses only have one campus technologist. He or she is often very busy and difficult to pin down. When a need arises that most teachers in the district need, we try to help the campus technologist by finding these alternatives. In this way he or she isn’t bogged down with the tedious process of installing applications on each computer.

Before I begin it is important that the user know the software version used in the instructions. This is important because inconsistencies might result during the lesson. We don’t want teachers or campus technologists to waste their time if the lesson does not fit their software version. In these situations we ask teachers to contact us so we can update the support document were needed or create a new support document to address any significant changes between versions.

After we’ve determined the basic requirements we walk through the process step by step. I usually complete the process from beginning to end at least once for simple instructions. For more complex instructions I walk through it one more time. It is usually during the second walk through, that I begin to take screen captures. I often take more screen captures than is necessary because I want to make sure steps are clear.

Knowing how many images to take is often a fine line between offering too much written information or too many images. Less is more. I try to convey as much information in one image. I often set a guide for myself. If I find that I am writing more than three sentences to explain something, then I probably need to add another image. This is not always possible so I try to keep the information brief. I repeat the process of taking images and describing the steps until the task is complete. Wherever necessary I like to let the user know what the expected outcome should look like and variations to the result if they apply.

One thing I like to keep consistent is the size of  image captures. I like the user to know that all the images are part of the same process. Taking all images at the same size helps the user understand where each subsequent image relates to the whole. This is helpful when looking at dialogue boxes or pull down menus.

I prefer to capture each image at 1024 by 633 pixels. I chose this dimension because it represents the golden ratio. This size also helps me to capture a fairly large area of the screen and most dialogue boxes fit comfortably within this area. Some applications display two or even three dialogue boxes one on top of the other. This larger view helps the user understand what is going on and what to expect when walking through the steps.

The images are not transferred to Screen Steps in this large size. One of the preference options is to scale captured images. I set the maximum width to 800 pixels. This gives me enough room to adequately add comments or annotations without loosing detail. By scaling images in this manner I am able to capture more detail from the screen and still fit most of it within a lesson.

The final step in the process is more important than the final published format. I review the steps one at a time and make sure that what I have described happens just that way. If I leave out a step I add it. If I feel there are too many steps then I trim a step or two to keep the pace smooth and informative. Most importantly, I check for spelling and grammatical errors. Screen Steps has a built-in spell check. I use this first. As a final editing step I export the lesson as a Word document. I open the document in Word and use it to help me check for grammatical errors.

I take one more step. This might seem like over kill, but I like to take the extra time to make sure it is done right the first time. Apple computers come with the ability to read text. The latest text to speech voice sounds natural. The text voice is Alex. How could I not use it to help edit my final documents? The computer reads all the text without assumptions. This often finds errors that a spell checker or grammar checker cannot. Yes, I used the text to speech to help edit this document.

Finally, I export the lesson to WordPress. In WordPress I clean up a few things and add any links or images. I export a version to PDF and upload that to the server. I go back to WordPress and include a link to this PDF for users.

You can see our support documentation site here.

A final feature is to make an EPUB version available. This will be the topic for my next posting.

Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 2

Bluemango.com learning has a good mini site that can help guide the development of good support documentation. They have a site titled How to Create Killer Documentation. I won’t go into great detail about this site. You can visit their mini site [here]. Instead I want to talk about some of the things I learned, and how they are affecting our support site for the district.

When developing e-books for teachers and campus technologists I was thinking of a one, two or three week project. This project would detail all the steps necessary for a teacher to get up and running with a product or software. When the project was complete I hoped it would answer all their questions. Like the oracle at Delphi.

Since then I have come to realize that it does answer a lot of questions, but the e-book addressed many more items that were not crucial for teachers. I was spending a great deal of my time creating instructions that were not always important for teachers. The important information teachers needed was often buried somewhere deep in the cavernous pages of my book. This is not to say that e-books have no place in support, but that e-books are not for everyone or for every situation. I believe there needs to be a tipping point where a book is more advantageous than targeted instructions. Support is not the place for a book. Maybe professional development?

Support needs to be targeted, up to date, and easily accessible. This is where Screen Steps and WordPress help make our support easy, accessible and convenient for teachers. This ease, accessibility and convenience extends to those of us that provide documentation to support technology and instruction.

Our focus is changing. We are targeting common questions and issues with specific support documentation. This documentation is available online where one can search and browse by category or tag. We can easily refer someone to a support document over the phone, and even send the link through email. We still provide phone support when asked, and send the link for future reference.

Much of our support documentation is based on questions or issues that arise, but not all. I like to anticipate questions. There is nothing like having the right answer when you need it. My goal is to anticipate teacher needs, and address those needs with quick support documentation. This has arisen from the many times in which I received a support question to one I knew was going to need addressing. Having the support document available at those times would have saved the teacher and myself a lot of time.

It can be a little difficult anticipating teacher questions. This is where our experience as teachers is paramount, and so is the continuous communication with teachers. We have all taught in the classroom before taking this position, and this experience allows us to understand the specific needs of teachers. One common theme runs through supporting any user and teacher. Time and relevance. Teachers are always pressed for time and the documentation we provide needs to be relevant to their needs.

An additional feature we have added to online support documentation is downloadable PDF versions of each lesson. We find that many teachers like to download and print our instructions for easy offline access. I have walked into a campus technologist classroom to see binders full of my instructions. I can’t help but be flattered. We are also addressing the need to be environmentally friendly. In addition to a PDF version, we also provide an EPUB version for e-book readers.

The reason for this alternate version goes beyond the convenience of print or e-book readers. Instructions usually refer to an online source or software, and it is difficult to have a browser open for reading instructions at the same time. PDF and e-book versions allow teaches to have the instructions sit next to them for easy reference while following instructions. Teachers often add notes to PDF versions that help them remember something or understand a concept. This concept of adding notes also applies to e-book versions.

Creating PDF versions is one of the features available in Screen Steps. I use a separate piece of software to create e-book versions. I will talk about this process in a future posting.

We try to provide detailed instructions with lots of images. Images are important and do a lot of the heavy work when it comes to creating support documents. The process we take for creating these documents is the subject of my next posting.

Support Documentation with Screen Steps Part 1

In the last posting I talked about how we use e-books to provide teacher support in our district. I also talked about the laborious process it takes to produce these e-books. Some of them have taken me weeks to produce.

Most of the questions from teachers or campus technologists can be answered with the information provided in one of our e-books. Many times I found my self referring a teacher to an e-book, but he or she just needed to get one thing done quickly. So I was asked to talk them through the process over the phone. I was a little frustrated that I had spent so much time on this e-book and it wasn’t used consistently. Read more…

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