Friday, September 30, 2016

Meet "Mr Dock" - a low tech solution to managing digital devices in the classroom

In a previous blog post about attempting to employ an Acceptable Use Policy to manage digital devices in the classroom, I reported that my colleague, Melek Korudağ, and I had tried out many techniques and applications to help students see how beneficial their smartphones can be in class, but in the end our efforts were abused so badly that we banned the use of phones in class completely. 

After that experience, Melek taught in two more institutions and tried out several other approaches. Eventually, she ended up adapting an idea she had seen at Sabancı University, Istanbul. Melek had a 'dock' for  phones tailor made from fabric. It has five 'rows' with four 'pouches' in each row in which a mobile phone can be stored.

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Meet 'Mr Dock' class!!
At the beginning of the semester, Melek discusses classroom rules with her students and negotiates terms for the acceptable use of mobile devices in class. She tells them that if they breach the agreement, she will introduce them to "Mr. Dock", who will make sure that no more breaches take place.  At this point, the actual identify of "Mr Dock" is not revealed. 

Melek reports that she has never had a class that hasn't been introduced to Mr Dock, as the students are unable to observe the terms agreed on smartphone use. She has been using Mr. Dock for over a year now and finds it very beneficial.

In practice, "Mr Dock" is hung from coat hooks on the wall.  Students place their phones (ideally in flight mode and/or muted, the screen hidden from view by facing toward the wall) in the pouches of "Mr Dock" at the beginning of each lesson.  If they need to use them for the lesson (kahoot, padlet, google search, dictionary work, etc.), it just takes them seconds to pick them up again and return them after the activity is finished. 

Many thanks to Melek for sharing her experience and acquainting us with "Mr Dock"!  I agree with Melek that it is important to go through the motions of discussing the acceptable use of digital devices in the classroom, and negotiating a class agreement with students.  However, as it seems students lack the necessary willpower to manage their digital device addiction, it is necessary to have an easy to implement "Plan B" to deal with the inevitable breach of agreed acceptable use of digital devices.  "Mr Dock" still makes it easy to use the phones for any class activity with minimal lost time in retrieving and replacing them after the activity is over.

If you have a seating plan that involves rows of desks, it would be an idea to layout out the pouches in "Mr Dock" to replicate the seating arrangement.  Then it would be easy to see if anyone had forgotten to 'dock' their phone.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to deal with digital devices in the classroom? Is an Acceptable Use Policy worth trying?

Does this scene look familiar?  I'm sure virtually every teacher on the planet can identify with the situation in the class below.

Nowadays, because almost every student has their own digital device,  having them in the classroom can cause a lot of tension and angst if they get in the way of learning.  On one hand, these devices can be extremely powerful agents for learning.  On the other hand, there is a tendency for students to use them primarily for social or entertainment purposes which detracts from the learning environment in class. What is more, the base needs Maslow proposed for learning to take place seems to have evolved to having a fully charged battery and WiFi access as prerequisite.

One obvious way to deal with this is to ban the phones completely.  It is an effective solution in terms of classroom management, but it does little to help students learn how to manage their personal use of digital devices, which if left unchecked can develop into what one could label as a serious addiction.

One approach that has emerged in the K-12 sector in America is to develop a Responsible Use Policy (also known as an Acceptable Use Policy). Here is one example  which includes a detailed guide in PDF.  However, most of these are based on the K-12 context in American schools and are generally school wide rather than classroom specific.

My teaching partner and I were experiencing classroom management issues related to the misuse/abuse of mobile phones in our second semester English pre-intermediate level group. In our institution, these groups are problematic at the best of times, as students with two distinct language abilities from the first semester are combined into one class for the second semester. Students who have not met the threshold to advance to intermediate from the previous semester's elementary level are put together with the previous semester's beginner students who did not make it to the accelerated pre-intermediate group. This causes a certain amount of tension in the general class dynamics, and the prior elementary students, who end up repeating much of what they did (or did not) learn, in particular have a mindset that makes them more likely to misuse their digital devices. 

Rather than banning the phones, I convinced my teaching partner to try implementing a Responsible Use Policy in our class.  The idea was to attempt to get all the students, regardless of their previous semester groups, to collectively agree on what was acceptable use of digital technologies in class for their mutual benefit.  This is what we did in our class.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Can computers replace teachers? Cambridge "Write and Improve" automated writing assessment - does it work in practice?

It's been well over twenty years since people started debating whether computers would ever replace teachers.  Of course, there will always be a need for teachers and the real human interaction that is part of learning, so the question is not so much about computer replacing teachers, but what kind of relationship will teachers (and their students) form with the emerging artificial intelligent entities to provide enhanced learning opportunities.

In my quest to discover such artificially intelligent entities, I came across the Cambridge Write and Improve site, in BETA, which lets students submit their writing and receive 'feedback' from an algorithm that analyses the student's writing using the knowledge it has acquired by examining millions of words written by other learners of English taking various Cambridge proficiency exams.

I was curious to see how useful AI feedback would be to a students, so I found a writing from one of my students in a pre-intermediate class, and typed it in to the Write and Improve site.  In fact, this was the final draft of a writing task done in class, so the student had gone through two previous drafts.  In the  Cambridge English "Write and Improve" site, there are options to write about pre-defined topics, aligned to the typical types of topics given in the Cambridge exams. Presumably, the feedback would be more focused and detailed for these. However, there is an  ANY OTHER OPTION for writing about any topic, so I used that.   Here is the text of the final draft which the student had written about the similarities between high school and an English preparatory school:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What should we learn from the Finns about education?

The Finns are well known for their excellence in education - Finland is top of the scales that assess and compare national systems of education.

How do they do it?  Quite simple:
  • Children don't start formal education until the age of seven.
  • The formative years focus on having fun in learning, being physically active and being creative.
  • Any formal examinations are banned until the age of 18
  • “Teaching to the test” is an alien concept. 
  • Free school meals are universally provided.
  • Pay teachers the same as doctors.
  • Forsake streaming by ability.
  • Ensure that all schools have equal funding and staffing, so students simply go to their nearest school
  • Abolish selective grammar schools.
  • Privatization of schools and competition between schools based on league tables do not exist.
  • Outlawing school selection to demonstrate commitment to equality (on both moral and economic grounds)
How does your national education system measure up to these criteria?  Not very well, I suspect.  But the even bigger question is why don't we learn from the Finns???

Wonder why one-third of school children in the US are obese?

Think what an MRI would tell us about their brains!!