Friday, November 7, 2014

First night of Actively Learn: reflections

So, the students came back today after their first night of homework reading the first third of Oedipus on Actively Learn.  I also had my first experience grading the work.

First, let me share the student feedback with you.

They said: They universally loved the ability to define a word right there.  They loved how easily and quickly they could find out the definition.

I say: Excellent!  They are thinking about words and defining them right as they are in the context of the word.  This is a major win.  If I had a university research team, I would design a study to test word meaning retention using a tap-to-define feature on a site like this or a kindle, versus using a paper dictionary or a dictionary on a different device.  My hypothesis would be that because they are tying the word's meaning to its use in the same instant, the meaning of the text overall and the individual word are strengthened.

They said: When I asked them about the questions I had embedded in the text, they liked how the questions made them stop and think.  One student said that it helped to break up the reading and make her think rather than just rushing on ahead.  A lot of them said that the questions made them reread because they realized they didn't understand something.  They liked the questions that asked them to summarize so that they could process what they had just read.

I say: This is a win!  I was worried they would be annoyed by the questions and have their flow unnecessarily interrupted.  My theory is that with a tricky text like this translation of Oedipus, the questions help to clarify and focus their reading.  My guess (again, someone give me a research budget) would be that the questions built into an easier read would be frustrating.

They said: They felt self conscious about leaving comments.  Were they being graded (aka judged) for those comments?  They weren't sure what to say.  They seemed to feel like the kind of marginalia they might make in a book would be deemed "stupid."  I don't think I agree, but that feeling is valid.
"Publicizing" their margin comments caused some anxiety.

I say: I wonder if Actively Learn could have a function where they left comments that only they could see.  So, there would be three options: private to them, shown only to me, or visible to the whole class.  Right now, the latter two options are the only ones.

They said: They liked seeing their classmates' (anonymous, per my settings) answers to the questions.  They can only see the answers of other after they submit their own answers.

I say: I want to ask them next class how it felt to see their own answers affirmed.  Did they realize the either strength or weakness of their own answers as a result of reading their peers' answers?

Okay, now let me tell you how it went on my end.  

I found the grading pretty fast.  I saw all of the answer to each question in a list.  I could click one of four choices: Incomplete, Basic, Proficient, Advanced.

If I clicked "Basic" I added a comment as to why.

Personally I had to think about the different between Proficient and Advanced.  I was looking for a stretch, a reach, or an especially well supported idea.  I was looking for a deeper understanding, a more thorough explanation.  I looked for students to take an analytical risk.  They all asked what those words would translate into as far as grades go.  Then I remembered the class settings.  Here are the defaults, which I kept:

Which looks like this so far for the first 14 questions:

  I actually think this is pretty accurate.  I might make the basic worth fewer points.  I think proficient should be an 8.5 and basic should be a 6 or 6.5.  Basic is really what I am using as you answered the question but it was off the mark.  Because, what if it is complete, but wrong?  Should they get a 7/10 for being wrong?  These are the questions I need to grapple with.  I can't change the buttons (Basic, Proficient, Advanced) so I need to think about how to use them, and how to translate that meaning to my students.

A quick note, if I don't push any button on a particular student's answer, it doesn't even count that question in their total.  I have a student who had some technical difficulties and left 4 questions blank.  I didn't click anything for her on those and it didn't penalize her for those blanks.


My reaction is positive.  I was feeling a little skeptical yesterday and not totally sold.  I still haven't made my mind up yet, but the scales are currently tipped toward the positive.

I want to also add how awesome the team at Actively Learn has been throughout this process.  I have emailed them with questions and comments, they have helped me upload custom texts and helped me troubleshoot problems.  They are very helpful and friendly and really listen to what I have to say.  I can't say enough about how great our interactions have been.  I am willing to take this risk and try this software because I know I have their ear and their support through it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Actively Learn journey begins

I have been absent for a while from the blog, and I will show you my excuse:

Our second baby just turned 12 weeks old!

But, I have been back at work for a little under three weeks, and I have some new projects with e-reading beginning.

In 2012, I went to the NCTE conference in Las Vegas.  In the exhibition hall, I met a man who had just started a website called Actively Read.  He got my info and signed me up.  It has taken me two years, but the site is now called Actively Learn and I am making my first foray into using the platform.

You can watch their video on how it works, but it is an e-reading platform, where teachers can layer questions, links, and notes onto the text.

It is web based, as opposed to many similar apps that are iPad only, so my students can access it on any device that has internet.

It's free, and we are using it to read Oedipus, Antigone and Medea, using translations in the public domain.

Today, my first class of honors sophomores signed up and familiarized themselves with the format.

Do I know if this will be successful?  No.  I am trying to keep an open mind and assess how things go as we go along.  My heart wants it to work.  My heart wants it to be a great experience.  We'll see.

Today, in just introducing the program, many students were excited by it.  There are questions they must answer to progress in the text.  After answering, they can see (anonymously or not) the answers or their peers.  I can also turn that function off.  I have created a layer of notes and questions within the text to help them read it.   I have linked to sites that will help them with contextual knowledge.  I have photos of the sphinx.  I have asked them to identify poetic devices.

When students read, they can leave notes.  Those notes can be visible to the whole class or just to me, a decision the student makes when commenting.  They can define words by highlighting or even have words read aloud to them.  This was all very exciting to them.

But of course, already there are downsides, at least after just one day.  A student came up to me to ask about getting an extension.  She found that this reading was taking her longer.  By having to stop and read notes, follow links or watch videos, she was slowing down.  Bad thing or good thing?  Isn't she deepening her understanding?  Is she rushing less?  Or is it a hindrance?  Am I unnecessarily cluttering up the reading experience for very bright students?

There is an essential question underlying this experiment.  It is: is this software necessary or helpful for students are are not only proficient, but excellent readers?  Is this a software that will benefit those who struggle but hinder those who do not?  I teach honors level sophomore English at an elite independent school.  Are the benefits of this type of reading universal?

We shall see.

Monday, November 3, 2014

TAIS Biennial Conference

Here is my most recent presentation on using Kindles and e-books in the classroom.