lundi 1 décembre 2014

A plea for Task Management standards for Students

I've been pondering this topic for some time now.

With more and more content-management tools available now such as Google Classroom, Showbie, iTunes U and others, teachers are using them more and more tools to send work to their students.

All these tools are independent, and based on your District's philosophy, you may have the choice of the tools you use as a teacher. More forward-thinking environments tend to encourage individualism in teaching practice, but teachers will also avoid using many different tools and tend to regroup around a single tool for this type of task as well.

For example, one school part of a GAFE District might opt for Google Classroom, while some teachers in another school could choose Showbie. Both have their strengths and weaknesses of course. I'm not going to judge which is best here. But the idea is that these tools evolve all the time and teachers will eventually choose the ones which make the most sense for them.

But as we engage students in all these tasks, how are we helping them structure their time? How do we help them decide what to work on and when?

They receive notifications of new work in some cases, or must go to a site to know they have something to do in others. Or maybe they receive emails telling them about work (although this is less and less frequent and many younger students aren't even familiar with email any more). But whatever the means teachers use to distribute work, very little is done to support student's learning of time management skills.

When is the appropriate time to work on one piece of homework? Should I divide this project into sub-tasks? Should the teacher tell students everything they must work on and when it is due or should the student take down all they have to work on? Or a combination of both? And how does a student decide when to work on something or plan ahead their week to ensure all is done in time?

We do not seem to be teaching this to students consistently.

Focusing on the "what", not the "when"

As teachers, when we hand out assignments or any other type of task, our deadlines include enough time for students to be able to go through the work. But with students having to deal with all the different subjects in the curriculum, they are the ones who need to plan ahead and decide when they will work on each piece of work. Which tools are they using to help them decide this? The paper planner? Some other ToDo management tool? In a world of collaborative tools it seems backward to have them handle this without tools built for their reality.

Rich personal lives
Students today live in a world of distractions and procrastination, but we cannot blame everything on these factors. Many are also part of reconfigured families and have to plan where they will be on some weekends and which work they will be tackling on these occasions. Plus, their social lives are richer than ever, many children being part of either a sports club or other activity such as music ensemble, dance courses and such. All great opportunities, but also more time required to be managed.

Parents certainly put in place all sorts of tools nowadays, such as shared calendars to know when things happen. Are we visiting grandma this weekend? Seeing the orthodontist Friday? Don't forget the soccer tournament this Thursday and Friday evenings...

With all this, it makes it more complex for students to plan their work. And I've seen high school students struggle with multiple team projects they must work on outside of school. Finding time to work together is hard.

Time Management Skills
Proper time management has now become a skill for today's modern worker. We have projects, we must plan when we will be working on each aspect of these projects. Work must be distributed over time to allow proper preparation for team meetings or collaborative sessions. If we want our children to learn how to deal with these constraints, we must allow them to develop these skills. And in order to develop the skills, they must be allowed to experiment and fail as well. What happens if I push all this work to the weekend? Oops, forgot about my hockey practice on Saturday and that we're away for the weekend... maybe I should have started earlier.

An overall view
As we struggle with the development of this precious skill,  we must provide tools to help students learn to manage their time. It is too easy to procrastinate if you do not have a clear vision of what is to come and the impact of changing when each task will be tackled. They need a centralized way to see what is upcoming.

Lack of standards
As my team and I work on the future tools we'd like our own children to use, we are struggling with one issue: lack of standards. Many existing platforms are great for assigning tasks and homework, but few tools allow students to have a global view of when these tasks are due and more importantly, when they will choose to work on each one. Few tools give them an overall view of all the tasks, across all the subjects, unless they enter them manually themselves and don't lose track. And even if they do, they lack tools to distribute work over time or to subdivide work into smaller pieces to be accomplished at various stages.

We are trying to deliver a tool to help students with this issue, but requiring teachers to enter information in multiple environments is not readily acceptable. Sure, teachers and students gain from having all the information in one place, and seeing all types of tasks not only "assignments" but any other type such as exams or evaluations which are not tied to specific workflows. Or even to have a global view of all exams in the school so teachers can coordinate their efforts. Having to enter specific elements in one content-management system, and then add it to another is not very productive and certainly something teachers resist doing, with reason.

Would it not be great to have a standard way for these systems to talk to each other on a simple level? Let each keep their strengths, but if they could offer a common hook allowing time management tools to read upcoming tasks and their associated due dates and state, then tools like Cogito could read these in and display them in the timeline or mark them as Done when appropriate.

This way, students would get all their planning information, be able to use more advanced time management tools to choose what to work and when and students and teachers would not have to enter informations multiple times.


As the CEO of Intuitic, I represent Cogito, a student planner for iPad, Chromebook and other web platforms. I'm putting my 25 years of experience (19 of which working for Apple Education)  working with educators in finding ways to implement technology projects in their environment. We've built Cogito in answer to a need to find better time management tools for students and are focused on delivering better tools to develop 21st century skills.

jeudi 20 février 2014

Got myself a Chromebook… first impressions

Well, I had tried some Chromebooks before, but I figured I should have one and live with it a bit, as well as explore firsthand how this can help students produce content.

I'm very focused on content creation, always have been. It is absolutely a key element in getting students engaged and improving their skills. And the ability to simply create complex and good looking documents is essential in raising their self-esteem. I've seen 2nd grade students produce movies, recording songs, reading stories, programming with Scratch and Lego and many other such projects and their enthusiasm is always incredibly high. This is when they simply do not want to leave for recess and you have to push them out so they get the exercise (and for you to get a break).

So I'm coming at this from the angle of content-creation.

Obviously, I'm also biased. I've worked on Apple devices since the late 70s all the way to today and worked for Apple 19 years out of my career. But through all this, I've always had one key goal, especially when I was at Apple, and that was to support the growth of the education system towards a more constructivist, competency-based approach to equip students for the current and coming realities.

Content creation and creativity are incredibly important. The arts are so important too. Anything creative.

So, the Chromebook... here are my notes:

I chose the Chromebook HP 11. It had a fun feeling to it and the others looked drab to me. I was suggested models from Dell, Samsung and Acer. When I have a choice, I seem to choose HP over others. I guess I have something for garages...

It also was available with a French-Canadian keyboard which is important for me.

Opening the box was a nice experience. Nice clean box, simple packaging, well laid-out, not full of stickers, etc. Not very important, but I appreciate it.

Set-up was very simple, select my network, enter my Google Account and I was in.

I didn't much play with set-up yet, just jumped in and went to Google Docs and checked out document editing, which was as expected. Same as on Chrome on my Mac, albeit somewhat slower, but not terribly so for that kind of work.

The screen is quite nice, 11 inches is useable, although I miss placing documents in portrait, but no big deal.

Trying it out as a consumption device, I played a few YouTube videos. Nothing terrible, but nothing impressive. Audio is a bit out of sync sometimes, image is not quite smooth all the time, but no huge problem.

Obviously, typing works out pretty well. Especially in French, since the accents are there. But, it is not as nice as you'd expect. The CSA keyboard on my MacBook Pro has preset accented characters. The é and É are on a key, which is the same on the HP11, but all other accented characters as well, or most of the common ones, like à, è, ç. ù... on the HP11, they are two-key combos, so you first hit the accent (say ^) then the letter, and you get ê. The difference is notable for me on the MacBook Pro, but on an iPad without an external keyboard, things are a bit worse, except for the fact that you always know which key will give you the right character. Long-press the e to get all possibilities and select the right one. Still, compared to an iPad without an external keyboard, for me at least, it is faster to type on the HP11.

Editing plain text is also improved compared to an iPad because of the trackpad. For text editing, I prefer being to select with the extra precision a trackpad offers. Students have told me they prefer typing on the iPad because it is the same as their iPhone and they can use the same sequences. Other students prefer a solid keyboard. The Eastern Townships School Board will be doing a research project on document editing on the iPad to learn more. Most of what we've heard comes from adults that come to the conclusion that a keyboard is «obviously» better... but we want to get the facts and we'll work with Dr. Thierry Karsenti to find out more. We think kids do not mind for the most part and see other advantages, like the ability to see your text and the keys at the same time without moving their eyes, something I've heard from a few 5th and 6th grade students.

When comes the time to create documents though, typing is only one part of the equation. Student suse today's communciation languages to express themselves and although this also means text, it certainly means enhancing their text with other media. SImply copying and pasting an image, inserting a photo you've taken with your device during an experiment, or a video for that matter. All in the word processor.

I cannot say I find Google Docs well-suited for this, but I'll explore this on the Chromebook to see if it changes my perception. Since everything is online or accessed through the same tools, perhaps it will be simpler than on my MacBook Pro.

Photos and videos
So the HP11 comes with a webcam. A pretty bad one at that with it's VGA resolution. And the processor isn't terribly snappy, so capturing a photo is not very smooth, but certainly useable.

Ok, pause here... just wanted to go to Google Docs and see if I could insert an image from my webcam. Ended-up closing all my tabs and getting back to blogger took a bit of poking around. Managed to realize this environment tries to reproduce part of the traditional document or hard disk metaphor... which makes things more complex than in other environments.

I had to 'save' my image to disk... now I can 'import' it into Google Docs. It works as you'd imagine. Simple enough and no worse than a computer and different than an iPad with the extra navigation and 'saving' perhaps. One layer of extra work and management. These complexities make managing technology in a classroom that much harder. I get mixed up and I'm an expert... but maybe this is my bias speaking.

I'll explore video editing as well, for now, I was quickly just trying to capture a clip using the webcam and it brought up something interesting. There are quite a few web apps available, some are well known and useful on any device. Some are a bit more specific. But as soon as you try to do something a bit more useful, say like more advanced video editing or even just capturing a clip, you have to find the right app. The ones I tried were very focused on getting you on their site. Some work offlie, some not, which is confusing if you travel around on a bus for example. You have to choose wisely. But more importantly, lots of web apps keep asking you to register for their paid service. Every time. And this bugs me a lot in the light that kids using devices should be able to focus on creating content, not be constantly bombarded by requests to register or buy something. Mind you, apps on the iPad have this to some extent, but the experience is more uniform in an education environment where a selection is provided. I have to find out how this gets reproduced. I guess we could provide a set of apps to every student via the management tools. But as a consumer, I find this constant presentation of 'plans' and pricing quite bothersome. And every time you register for such a service, you start getting emails to 'help' you get started. I'm quite sure when you have a GAFE set-up, you can avoid much of this because of the apps which tie-into this of course. That exploration is for later as this is just my 'First impressions' post.

Paying for software is in my genes, and as a developer myself, I can appreciate that you'd have to pay for quality software. Some companies, like Google and Apple give away quality products for free and that's their strategy. A few others do this as well, but if we want to democratize software, we need to reward those who invest in creating new tools and better tools. Going only with what is free is not going to help this industry. Some free, some paid, in order to achieve your goals. Offer and demand.

to be continued...