16 August, 2014

Look out Moodle. Here Comes Google Classroom.

As Google launches the much hyped Classroom Learning Management System (LMS), I'm reminded of am experience I had a few years ago when my school sat down to decide which LMS we would use - or VLE's as we called them back then.

Speaking from my limited experience as a newly minted classroom teacher, I delivered a proposal to adopt Google Apps for Education (GAFE) which you can see below.  I'd heard of Moodle and Edmodo before, but hadn't the experience to advocate for either of them.  Back then, GAFE didn't offer the LMS experience per se, but did offer the building blocks and essential tools to perform many of the same functions.  Through a handy dandy mix of Google Docs (now rolled into Drive), Sites, Blogger and other core apps, teachers could easily create and curate course materials, assignments and more, deliver them online to students, and facilitate discussions in the cloud.  

GAFE was my toolbox and it was stocked with tools that were carefully crafted to do their respective "thing" really well - as opposed to many things half as well (ahem...yes, I'm talking to you Moodle - get back in your corner).  

If I needed to design a webquest experience and share a bunch of links with a group of students and have them write responses to questions related to their findings, Google Sites would do the trick.  If I wanted to check for understanding after a lesson, I could deliver a quick, self-marking exit ticket through Google Forms and have the results automatically fed back to Sheets.  How's about collecting anecdotal notes on my students from specialist teachers through Google Docs so I can build a fuller picture of my kids in contexts I don't see them in. Let's not forget collaborative slideshow presentations with Google Slides. Oooh, and let's embed those back into our class site.  How's that for interoperability...and so intuitive to boot.  

Overall, GAFE provided easy to use creation and sharing tools that allowed me to take my classroom to the cloud, thus extending the time and space of learning for my students. 

In the end, our school went with a marriage between Moodle and GAFE (Moogle as one of my colleagues calls it).  Moodle was chosen because it seemed to be the silver bullet solution to a lot of issues.  It fulfils the need to have all courses from K-12 created, housed, and accessed in one place.  It also became the go to point for administrative and curriculum documentation, and communications to staff and parents.  It is, at the most basic level, like a monolithic filing cabinet where anyone can go to find the courses, communications and documentation they need.  At a more advanced level, Moodle should be the virtual space to connect with other members of the community.  Teachers and students are expected to use the forum tools to converse and collaborate in the cloud, use the assignments feature to, well, post and submit assignments, and use features like Quizzes and Gradebook to collect assessment data.  Moodle is supposed to be the online home for everyones classes while GAFE should only be used as a set of productivity tools.  In short, all roads lead to Moodle.

As teachers and students become more familiar with GAFE however, all roads seem to be running increasingly through Moodle.  In fact, had the IT Department and Senior Leadership not tied the proverbial knot between Moodle and GAFE via a Single-Sign-On authentication through Moodle, I'm convinced teachers and students would be paving their own roads around the big orange M altogether.

Why is that?  For one thing, it is Moodle's biggest selling point - its flexibility - which has become, at least in our school, it's biggest downfall in terms of lack of uptake.  Moodle appeals to many because of its Mr Potato Head configurability.  Provided you know CSS, can access and install plugins, navigate your way through the innumerable configuration options (codified in unintuitive language) and, and, can make Moodle work for you and your students and perhaps your school.

But from the position of a Digital Coach and Integrator charged with the task of upskilling staff and selling Moodle, I can tell you that this is way beyond what much of our teaching staff wants and is capable of doing at the moment.  There is too much choice and too many configurations for each activity and resource to be set up.  Oh, and doing the pretty stuff like formatting, design and layout on that tiny HTML editor?  It's a pig! I know pretty colours and designs aren't necessarily the "stuff" of education, but don't underestimate its importance to teachers and students - especially in Primary School grades.  Ah, and don't get me started on how Moodle renders on mobile devices...we could be here for a while.

All in all, Moodle is just a bit too clunky, a bit too multi-step, and not intuitive enough.  I'm not doing myself any favours here seeing as we've hitched our cart to this big orange horse and I'm supposed to be its advocate, but it is the God's honest truth.  It's my blog and I'll cry if I want to, cry if I want to...

Bring on Google Classroom...

If Google Classroom is anything like the suite of tools in GAFE, it will succeed as a learning platform where Moodle fails. It will be limited in its options and intuitive in the execution of its functions, yet flexible enough for more advanced users to make more complicated configurations.  Users like GAFE tools because they have straight forward icons, menu tabs and commands.  The interface is clean, simple, and easy to use.  Applying this to the Classroom LMS will lead to much quicker uptake.

Of course the other more pinnacle piece here is the synergy between Classroom and Drive.  The most obvious function being touted now is that a teacher can create an assignment in Drive, share it with students via Classroom and have it submitted back through Classroom for marking and feedback.  Much like how you can Insert from Drive in your Google Site, Classroom will have that same interoperability.  Teachers can also post links to sites and harness content from YouTube in the course.  I'm assuming that quizzes via Forms, online collaborations through Google Hangouts, and blogging features are all part of the Classroom LMS now, if not, in the near future.  And that's another thing...Classroom LMS will have a similar advantage like other Apps in the GAFE suite - an army of software developers and programmers working on experimental extensions and add-ons which eventually get incorporated after beta testing.

Perhaps the next step is for Google to do the one thing Moodle does now already which is to house all those Google Classrooms in a walled garden.  I'm sure they have Google School set to roll down the pipeline at some point, but only after classroom goes through its paces.

For now, I'm left in a precarious position:  continue a forced integration of a platform I know is doomed for failure or fight for the platform I know will seize the day.  Ultimately that decision will be informed by how the platforms help or hinder learning and teaching.  At the moment I get this all too familiar message when I try to explore Classroom from our domain:

Something tells me I have to log into the Admin Panel, flip on the switch, and start a trial...

21 January, 2014

Appy-Hour: Annotate Photos with Skitch

The week's Appy-Hour pick is an absolute essential for teachers and students.  Skitch belongs to Evernote's collection of handy tools and is a free photo annotation service available on iOS and Android mobile devices as well as Mac and PC computer platforms.  On mobile devices, you can capture and annotate photos, screenshots, maps and more with text, shapes, callout arrows, and labels.  You can then easily share these photos through your Evernote account or Camera Roll.

As mentioned above, it is also available for your computer too.  I often use it for student and teacher tutorials to call out certain icons, buttons, windows and more when explaining how different programs work (see below).  While you don't need an Evernote account to use Skitch, having one means you can save your Skitches and archive them using Evernote's awesome organisational tools.  Besides, Evernote is free and well worth having in your teacher's toolkit.