Google’s Master Plan Behind the Chromebook

Google's Master Plan Behind the ChromebookEarlier this month I spent two days at the Google campus in Mountain View, California. The Google in Education team invited an assortment of Google Certified Teachers, Trainers, and partners to learn the latest about the recently released Chromebook. There are some neat things on the horizon.

Jaime Casip, Google Education Senior Evangelist, spoke for a large portion of our second day together and explained the reason Google is venturing into the world of operating systems and hardware. His response was not at all what I expected and was quite visionary. So much so, I thought it was worth sharing: the development of Chrome OS and the Chromebook is an effort to make computer hardware obsolete.

“The device,” said Jaime, “should be completely transparent.” You shouldn’t need to think about whether you are using an Mac or a PC or a smartphone or a tablet. The experience should be simple and seamless. Without software to purchase or update, hardware configurations to worry about, or limitations based on support of flash, silverlight, etc, you can focus on doing what you came to do.

Someone using a Chromebook can have the exact same experience using the Chrome web browser on their PC or Mac. Ultimately, if Google gets the widespread adoption of HTML5 that it hopes for, we can also have the same experience on our iPad or Android phone.

I thought that Google was taking on Apple and Microsoft for a piece of the huge cash cow known as hardware and operating systems. Not at all! Google is trying to get computers into everyone’s hands. Google is betting that everything will move to the web and wants to make sure that everyone can get there quickly and reliably. Google won’t lock you into their hardware (unlike Apple) or charge you an arm and a leg for their software (unlike Microsoft). If you don’t want to purchase a Chromebook, fine, you can do everything a Chromebook can by using the Chrome web browser. The point isn’t the hardware or the software, it’s speedy, reliable access to the web.

As an educator, I applaud Google’s efforts. Hardware is expensive and difficult to maintain. Making the decision to choose Macs or PC’s essentially locks a school into a set of abilities and limitations. If the web is your platform, however, many of these issues disappear.

InstaGrok Educational Search Engine

Can you define the word “Grok?”

Grok Definition

InstaGrok is a developing answer-engine that is specifically designed for the education market. The mission of  InstaGrok is to teach 21st Century research and curation skills in a safe, age appropriate environment. InstaGrok is commercial free and organizes search results according to themes and concepts. In a way, InstaGrok is similar to Wolfram|Alpha as it provides answers and information rather than a list of links. Using the search box, type in any term or idea that you are interested in learning about. The results returned are divided into five categories:

  • Overview
  • Websites
  • Videos
  • Q&A
  • Quizzes
The results returned are derived algorithmically which means the database is as wide as the internet. There are three features of InstaGrok that are especially noteworthy and should excite educators:

InstaGrok's version of the "Wonder Wheel"

Anyone who enjoyed using the Google WonderWheel (RIP) will appreciate the concept map feature of InstaGrok. Much more sophisticated that its predecessor, this concept map includes the ability to click on related terms or the ability to see the relationship between two words by clicking on their connecting lines.

Dynamic Leveling
All results returned from an InstaGrok search can be sorted by academic level. The current options include “College”, “High School” and “School.” All of the content returned in a search are clearly marked with its associated level. Leveling is determined by vocabulary and work complexity.
Quiz Questions
InstaGrok is able to dynamically create multiple choice quiz questions from relevant content. Students can answer questions and receive immediate feedback on the answer as well as the ability to read the content from which the question was generated. This is a very exciting feature that teacher will appreciate.
The next time you or your students are research information, give InstaGrok a try! Let us know what you think.

Moodle Hangout Anyone?

Moodle Hangout
Moodle was launched as a pet project in 1999 by Martin Dougiamas. Since then, it has grown into an enormously popular learning platform that boasts over 57 million users who have access to roughly 5.8 million courses.

Moodle is an open source, community driven learning management system that is used in traditional, blended, and fully online classrooms. Anyone can setup a Moodle server and start building online courses in a matter of minutes.

Because of my interest in online learning, I am co-hosting a Moodle Hangout on Google+ with fellow educator Sean Beaverson. This gathering is an informal conversation on all things Moodle. Whether you newbie or a ninja, you are welcome to join the conversation. We will be discussing the pros and cons of Moodle vs. other proprietary LMS systems (BlackBoard, BrainHoney, Haiku, etc) as well as more technical things such as the differences between Moodle 1.9 and 2.0. Come ask your questions, give some answers, and learn about how Moodle might help you!

When: Tuesday, January 17 at 1pm (Eastern)
Where: Google+ (to join the hangout, you will need to “circle” myself or Sean Beaverson)
What: A discussion about using Moodle in traditional, blended, and fully online classrooms.

Google Educast #30: Googling Ahead to a New Year

In the news: Google extends through 2012 free calling via Voice from Gmail, YouTube Slam and YouTube Rewind 2011. Google Voice – tips for using in education. Google Tasks and Inbox Zero. Things to try in 2012: Forms for the one-device classroom, Fear Not the Docs List, App Inventor Reborn at MIT.

Show Hosts:   Diane Main, John Sowash, Chris Betcher 

Send us your thoughts! 

Leave us an email at

Top Apps for Professional Development

Apps for Professional DevelopmentI was recently asked to lead a professional development session for a school that is starting to roll out iOS devices for teachers and students. Over the course of the year, staff at this school will be receiving a significant amount of professional development to help them better utilize the technology that is available to them. The focus of my session was iOS Apps for professional development. I scrolled through my iPad and made a list of the Apps that I use on a regular basis to help me learn and develop as an educator. Here’s what I came up with:
*Note: if you would like a printable copy of this list, click here
Communication Apps

Twitter App (free)

Twitter is one of the most active and beneficial social networks on the web. All educators would be wise to join the conversation. If you haven’t used Twitter yet, I would recommend that you read these excellent blog posts:

Google Voice (free)

Text and call for free! Also allows you to read transcribed voicemail messages or listen to them.

Skype (free)

A beautiful app that allows you to make and receive VOIP calls on your iOS device.

HeyTell (free)

A fun “walkie-talkie” app for quick voice communication. Works over WiFi. Our IT team uses it to communicate with each other because they are always holed up in some random IT closet throughout the building.

Consumption Apps

FlipBoard (free)

A beautiful app that turns your RSS reader (such as Google Reader) into a magazine. Quickly and simply browse through blog posts and news articles as if you were flipping the pages of a magazine.

Zite (free)

Similar to FlipBoard, however instead of just providing a beautiful interface to view content you select, Zite tries to introduce you to new content sources based off of sources you currently read.

QR Code Readers

Quick-Response codes are the strange black and white boxes that have begun appearing everywhere. This little box is a coded website URL. Scanning the code with a QR code reader will take you to the associated web page. QR codes are a great way to quickly lead people to a specific website without having to type in the URL.

  • RedLaser: free native iPhone app, simple and lightweight
  • Qrafter: free, the most robust of all of the QR scanners. Saves scans and includes sharing options
  • Scan: free, simplest to use. Scans automatically load in integrated web-browser

Diigo (free)

Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that allows you to save, categorize, and share your favorite websites. Use Diigo to bookmark a site you found using your computer so that you can pull it up later on your iPad.

Research Apps:

Google Search App (free)

Provides access to Google search (text, voice, and image), Calendar, Docs, Google+ and much more. A must have.

WolframAlpha ($2.99)

WolframAlpha is an amazing “computational knowledge engine” that provides answers to mathematical questions. This is a great tool for mining data or running large-scale comparisons or calculations.

Document and File Management Apps:

QuickOffice HD ($14.99)

Document management and editing app that integrates with Google Docs, Dropbox, Evernote, MobileMe and several other services. Enables you to quickly and easily move documents between services or save them locally to edit when you don’t have a web connection. One of the few apps that supports the creation and editing of PowerPoint presentations.

Genius Scan (free)

Take a photo of your receipts and easily organize and email via PDF. This is a great app for anyone who travels or submits a lot of expenses for reimbursement.

DropBox (free)

Cloud-based storage that you can access from most web-enabled devices. Dropbox is the go-to solution to move files onto and off of iOS devices.

Utility Apps

iTalk (free)

Simple and basic voice recorder. Records interviews or voice memos simply and effectively.

App Discovery: Discovr Apps (free) | AppMiner (free)

Sometimes finding the right app for a specific need can be challenging. These two apps attempt to help by suggesting relevent apps based on those you currently have or on suggestions that you submit.

Dragon Dictation (free)

This is a very useful speech-text app. I know individuals who use it to write email messages instead of typing them on their iPad.

GoTasks (Free)

Simple, no-frills to-do-list that integrates well with Gmail Tasks feature.

Education Apps

Attendance ($4.99)

A highly rated gradebook app for iPod/iPad. Integrates with Dropbox. Allows users to take pictures of students to help with attendance taking. Can integrate with popular LMS such as BlackBoard.

Socrative (Free) Teacher App | Student App

A new, and very popular tool that allows teachers to create dynamic assessments. Students use the Student App to turn their iOS device into a “clicker” device. Socrative is a web-based service that works on virtually any device with an Internet connection.

CommonCore (Free)

This well designed app makes browsing common core standards simple and intuitive. Look for significant updates as the standards for additional disciplines are released.

Discovery Streaming (“Web App”, requires subscription)

Browse through the Discovery Ed video library on your iPad. Videos can be streamed directly from the device. App does not install through the App Store. Click here to visit the mobile optimized DE site.

Screen Sharing Apps

Remote Desktop Solutions

Splashtop Remote Desktop ($2.99) | Doceri Remote (free)

Allows you to control and view your desktop on your iOS device. Great for teachers who like to roam around the room while they teach.

ScreenChomp (free)

Simple whiteboard app that allows the quick authoring of white-board videos. Records audio as well as the screen. Utilities include multiple pen colors and clip art. Easily upload videos to Facebook or

iBrainstorm (Free)

Drawing tool (does not record video or audio). Supports live screen sharing so that someone multiple people can view the same screen. Finished drawings can be sent via email or exported to the camera roll.

Occupy Online Learning!

Photo via Flickr from WarmSleepy

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the Virtual School Symposium sponsored by iNACOL in Indianapolis, Indiana. My primary reasons for attending this conference was to learn what others are doing related to online learning and to connect with various companies to help fill some needs in the online program that I administrate.

The keynote speaker during lunch on Thursday was Steve Midgley, Deputy Director of Educational Technology, who through wry humor and insightful observations, encouraged and challenged an audience approaching 2,000 educators. One of the more poignant and practical remarks that he made was a challenge to the educators and administrators of K-12 online schools around the world to demand greater interoperability between learning management systems, curriculum developers, and supplemental resource creators.

A quick trip through the vendor hall proves Midgley’s assertion that this interoperability is only a dream:

  • While each learning management system contains the same basic features, getting content and data in an out of them is challenging.
  • The only viable way to choose digital curriculum is to sign up for the entire online learning package offered by the curriculum companies. This includes courses that may not be the best or that you may not need/want. There is virtually no opportunity to select courses al-la-carte in an effort to assemble the best program for students. It’s an all or nothing market.
  • Universal authentication is a dream, not a reality. Everyone knows that it’s a good idea, but few vendors offer it. Those that do charge handsomely. Choosing your curriculum al-la-carte will results in students having multiple accounts and login credentials on multiple systems.
I acknowledge that there are technically challenging problems that must be solved to make system interoperability a reality. However I would argue that many vendors are dragging their feet on solving these technical issues in an effort to retain profits and earnings from customers who are locked in to their products. Portability is not something that companies are interested in improving. In a free market, the best products will be selected by consumers. In the currently highly segmented market for online learning resources, many schools become locked into sub-par products that they can’t escape.

Google Educast #25: Reborn!

The Google Educast is Reborn! This week we discuss the new look across all Google products, the new Presentation editor, discuss file versions in Google docs, using collections to organize and share documents, and highlight a teacher’s use of Google Moderator in the classroom.

Show Hosts:   John Sowash, Sean Williams, Diane Main, Daniel Rezac

The complete show notes are now on the EdReach Wiki.


Call us on our comment line!

If you’d like to leave some feedback you can call us on our very own EdReach Comment line: That’s: (443) 93REACH.

Non-Technical Innovations for Techie Teachers

Flickr via jrsowash

I do quite a bit of consulting work related to educational technology. Most of it involves leading workshops to help teachers apply today’s web and mobile technologies to their classrooms. Most teachers are eager to incorporate technology into their instruction, however I am always wary of teachers implementing technology for the sake of technology without enhancing classroom learning. To discourage this, I usually start my session by asking participants to think of a classroom innovation that does NOT involve technology. The idea can’t plug in, logon, charge up, or turn on.

My question is usually followed by a few seconds of stunned and confused silence. I remind them that this application can be something that they have done in their classroom or something that they observed someone else doing. The wheels slowly start to turn and individuals beging sharing with one another. After 2-3 minutes of discussion I ask the group to share some of the ideas they heard. The responses are always entertaining and creative!

I end this brief segment by reminding everyone that simply using technology because its available or because “that’s what 21st century educators do”, does not necessarily improve student learning. “Non-technical” inovations are just as appropriate and useful as giving a a student an iPad.

This activity helps frame the discussion of technology in the classroom by emphasizing the importance of being intentional and selective in our implementation of technology. If nothing else, my workshop participants leave my session with a list of non-technical ideas to help students achieve more.

*Thanks to Dr. Mark Wagner for this inspiration for this idea.

The Coming Expansion of K12 Online Learning

K-12 online education has grown at a rate of 30% annually. Hybrid classrooms (a blend of online and face-to-face instruction) has also begun to gain traction in main-stream K-12 education. Despite these indicators, two factors continue to hold back the growth of online learning at the K-12 level:

1. State and federal education policy was written before online learning was a thought. Current policies, such as seat time requirements and funding models, unintentionally retard growth in K-12 online learning.

2. Like the music and newspaper industries, traditional publishers have been a significant obstacles to improvements in online learning. In an effort to protect their existing multi-billion dollar market, few of the large publishers have produced any innovative products for the online learning sector.

In recent weeks, the foundations of these two roadblocks are beginning to crumble, potentially paving the way for a rapid expansion of online learning opportunities for K-12 students.

This past week, Pearson Education, the world’s largest publication company, purchased Connections Academy, an online school and content provider for 21 states and over 40,000 students, for $400 million. Will Ethridge, CEO of Pearson North America, said, “We see Connections Education as highly complementary to our own business, and it provides an opportunity for developing new models of instruction and increasing the effectiveness of Pearson’s global educational programs.” This deal follows in the footsteps of significant investments in online learning technology from the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

This purchase signals a change in Pearson’s corporate vision and makes them a powerful force in the online learning market, one that can take on Florida and North Carolina’s virtual programs which account for 96% of the online learning market. The modest investment made by Pearson (2010 earnings were $8.7 billion) could potentially start a good ‘ol fashioned “arms race” as other large publishers stake a piece of the online learning sector. Be on the lookout for acquisitions by McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the near future.

The second recent development that signals a change in acceptance of online learning is the recent decision by the Idaho State Board of Education to require the class of 2016 to complete at least 2 credits virtually in order to graduate. Board Secretary Don Soltman commented, “We live in a digital age and we must do right by our students and give them an opportunity to learn in this environment before they go on to their post-secondary education.” Experience in online learning is becoming an accepted form of college preparation as more and more higher-ed courses are being conducted virtually.

Idaho joins three other states (Alabama, Michigan, and Florida) that have also mandated that high school graduates have an online learning experience. What makes Idaho different is the specification that students take two credits online whereas the other states only require an online learning “experience” or a single course. Indiana is also close to enacting a similar requirement.

The virtual learning tidal wave is gaining momentum. As online learning become more popular, there will undoubtedly be a shortage of qualified and experienced teachers presenting a tremendous opportunity for pioneering educators.

5 Great Online Learning Blogs

When I want to learn about a new topic or be informed on issues that are important to me, I look for blogs and people to add to my PLN. This year I am focusing a lot on distance learning as I help launch a new online program for my school. Here are a few key sources of information and inspiration that I draw upon:

1. Blogger Justin W. Marquis shares information about online learning in link-rich posts.

2. Disrupting Class: Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn post infrequent, but insightful thoughts on current trends in online learning. These guys have a really good handle on the pulse of virtual education at all levels.

3. Virtual School Meanderings: Blogger Michael Barbour authors one of the most regularly updated blogs on online learning that I have found. There is little that goes on in this sector of education that Barbour doesn’t pick up and comment on. This is a go-to blog.

4. The eLearning Coach: This blog provides a refreshingly different take on distance learning as it it focuses on designing courses for use in a business setting. Author Connie Malamed provides very practical advice on designing effective courses.

5. Getting Smart (formerly EdReformer): an excellent source for policy information related to online and virtual education in the United States.

Online Learning Primer

Online Learning PrimerThere is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding online learning. I am currently in the process of launching a virtual school and have daily conversations with people regarding our program. Here are some comments I have received:

“So you have webcams setup in all of your traditional classrooms and students from around the world just watch what’s going on on the real class?”

“Is my kids just going to sit in front of his computer all day?”

“Everyone has to get online at a certain time to watch the teacher deliver the lesson?”

“Do students ever get to interact with a teacher or their classmates?”

These comments, and many others that I have received underscore the limited exposure that most people have toward online learning and some of the misconceptions that exist. It’s my goal to educate them on the possibilities of online learning. Here’s a quick primer.

Synchronous Learning: This model of instruction requires students to be present in front of their computing device at a specified time to participate in the learning activity for the day. This is often lecture or other forms of direct instruction. The benefit to this type of arrangement is the ability to ask questions of the instructor in a real-time setting. For the instructor, they have the opportunity to better assess the understanding of their students.  The downside to this method is that it restricts the flexible nature of online learning by requiring students to be present at a specific time. It also becomes very challenging when dealing with students from multiple time-zones, some of which can have a 12  hour time difference.

Asynchronous Learning:  This method of instruction has become the dominant form of online learning because it allows students to learn when and where they choose. Instruction is accessed on-demand through recorded and web-based information. Students are given a list of assignments to complete by a certain date and then have the flexibility to schedule study times around their personal needs. The weakness of this method of instruction is that obtaining personal help from the instruction requires communication and the scheduling of virtual meetings. Instructors also have a greater challenging in tracking student understanding.

Learning Management System (LMS): The LMS is a web-based software application that manages course content, assessments, student progress. The LMS includes many resources such as the digital course text, a calendar with assignment deadlines, discussion boards, a drop-box for submitting files to the instructor, and a resource section with the course syllabus and assignment documents. Most LMS systems include the ability to give tests, chat with teachers and students, send messages to the course instructor, and see grades. Popular LMS systems include Blackboard, Moodle, BrainHoney, and Haiku.

Student Information System (SIS): The SIS is the central reporting tool for a virtual school and acts much like a traditional guidance counselor. The SIS accepts student applications and enrollments and manages graduation requirements, transcripts, and report cards. Many SIS systems include powerful reporting tools that allow school administrators and parents to obtain detailed information about the progress of their students. Popular SIS systems include Genius, BlackBaud, and Open SIS.

Virtual Classroom (VC): The virtual classroom is where real-time, synchronous communication takes place. The VC is a teleconferencing platform that typically includes audio, video, chat, screen sharing, and a white-board. In a synchronous school, the VC is the place where students gather to participate in a lesson, In an asynchronous model, the VC is where students and teachers will meet to work through challenging problems and get additional help on a lesson. Popular VC systems include Elluminate (now Blackboard Connect), Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, and WebEx. Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Facebook Video Chat, and OoVoO can also be used, although they are not as full-featured.

Social Media: One of the frequent concerns that parents and students have about learning online is the perceived lack of social interaction with teachers and peers. While this doesn’t happen as naturally in an online environment as in a traditional classroom setting, there are many ways to intentionally include this aspect into an online school. This aspect of online learning is fairly new (last 3-4 year), but is quickly growing. A few companies with innovative products in this market include Edmodo, Schoology, and Social Cast.

Online Facilitation: Important Concepts

Facilitating Online Courses: Practical SuggestionsFacilitating an online course is a lot different than teaching a traditional face-to-face course. Success in a traditional classroom does not necessarily translate into success as an online facilitator. There are some fundamental differences between online and traditional courses that explain why a different skill set is required for online instructors:

  1. In a traditional course, the majority of instruction is given verbally, in an online course the majority of instruction is written.
  2. In a traditional course, the majority of instruction is given in real-time, in an online course the majority of instruction is on-demand.
  3. In a traditional course, tone and voice are easily communicated, in an online course, tone and voice must be carefully considered and communicated in writing.

The most critical skill for the facilitator of an online course is the ability to communicate effectively in writing. A skilled facilitator will be able to communicate the same nuances of spoken communication in writing. Doing so is not easy and takes work. Here are a few tips:

  • Depth: are your comments substantial and “meaty?” Do they add to the conversation rather than just affirming?
  • Personality: are you communicating your personality in your posts? Are they dry or do they have a flavor that is entertaining to read. If you didn’t sign your name to a post, would someone know that you wrote it?
  • Inclusive: are you providing the necessary background information in your posts? Can everyone follow what you are saying? Are you assuming to much? It is also important to make sure that your written communication does not alienate a group based on race, gender, religion, etc.
  • Humor: “If you don’t allow humor in your classroom, you will become the subject of humor in your classroom.” Humor is both essential and dangerous. Allow and encourage humor, but recognize that jokes are difficult to convey in written form and can be easily misinterpreted, becoming offensive in the process.
  • Formal/Neutral: when communicating instructions or expectations, the number 1 goal is clarity. Avoid distractions such as humor, irony, sarcasm, etc as they can be easily misinterpreted. Stick to the facts.

The tips above were gleaned from an excellent online course titled “Online Facilitation” that I took this summer. The course was created and taught by Performance Learning Systems. It was a very practical course that helped identify potential challenges facilitating an online course. I would highly recommend this course for anyone moving from a traditional classroom to an online classroom.


1:1 iPads in Michigan

Southfield Christian School Launches a 1:1 iPad Program

I’m excited to announce that next year my school, Southfield Christian, is launching a 1:1 iPad initiative in our high school. All students in grades 9-12 will receive an iPad to take home and keep for the entire school year.

We have been planning and preparing for this even for over a year. Our decision to go with the iPad had to do with the cost:feature ratio, ease of use, maintenance track record, and power consumption. We were very excited that the launch of the iPad2 came just before we placed our order.

Peter Webber, IT Director at Southfield Christian, has done a marvelous job in preparing the infrastructure of the school for the massive increase in wireless devices. As our program launches, we will share some of the resources and documentation we have created to help other schools launch similar programs.

I was happy to see the positive coverage that our program received in this month’s THE Journal. Our staff training was a great success and got our teaching staff excited about using the iPads in the classroom next year. We purposely scheduled our staff training in the early summer so that the teachers could play around and become more comfortable with their iPads before returning to school in the fall. They teaching staff is also recommending apps to include for student use.

Southfield Christian is also happy to announce that we will be co-hosting an  iPad conference on October 20-21 sponsored by the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL).  The conference features a full day of hands on workshops as well as a full day of sessions related to the iPad in education. Conference registration opens in August.

The iPad is a great tool, but it doesn’t replace quality teaching staff or sound teaching principles. Our excellent teaching staff is excited to leverage the technology afforded by the ipad to enhance student engagement and achievement in the coming school year.

EdRoundtable: The Future of Google+ in Education

Google+ in EductionWelcome to the EdRoundtable. One of us will throw out an idea or question, and the roundtable adds their views. This edition of the EdRoundtable focuses on Google+ and its possible implications for education.


Chad Kafka

When Google adds G+ to Google Apps, it needs to not just be a simple “login” addition like many of the other services are that were add-ons after the main suite of Apps.  Google+ should allow for administrators to have control over the G+ domain settings like GMail, Docs, Sites, Video, and Calendar allow for.  This will create a way for the Apps admin in each district to control how G+ is used in the district and calm any fears parents or the community would have when it comes to “kids and social networks.”  If G+ is just added to the domain like Blogger and Picasa with no real functionality built in for the Google Apps admin in the district, then teachers and the district are probably going to be stuck NOT using it because it would run the risk of having a student’s identity publicly visible.


Daniel Rezac

I may be going out on a limb with this, but I think Google has a huge advantage with this product. They’ve already got millions of kids using Google Apps, so it will inevitably come down to a Google Admin who decides to “turn it on” in their district. If this tips, I think it has enormous potential to grab social networkers at a young age. And, it’s built into a learning tool that they’re already comfortable using. Not to put down Skype, but how difficult is it sometimes to organize a group Skype call? With Google+ organizing a Huddle or Hangout is so simple- a 2nd grader could do it. The keys to Skype really lie with the teacher, I see the keys to Google+ lying with the students. There are also great possibilities to teaching students proper digital citizenship skills here, and not teaching them about social networking “in theory.” With staff- there’s an advantage because folks have always hesitated adding their work friends to Facebook, because they don’t want work people seeing everything. Again- problem solved. Circles really does solve a lot of problems that Facebook created. Let’s keep exploring, and see what happens!

Scott Meech

For me it will be all about grouping with circles. The ability segment a classroom population as granularly as an educator would like creates all kinds of sharing and restricting possibilities. The ability to share across multiple circles by individual pieces of content can provide teachers and students with  a flowing format or grouping and sharing that can be very powerful. The ability to restrict future sharing can also be a very useful tool to limit access or the extension of material beyond the original intended audience. From a PD standpoint, circles would allow for a differentiated grouping of individuals and resources by interest and ability levels.

Jay Blackman

I am looking forward to the possibility of integration of Google+ with Google Docs – imagine the ability to have a truly collaborative workspace where a Hangout could be used for video communication while a Google Presentation plays and a group of editors shares their notes in a Google Doc. I think Google+ could fulfill the team communication and collaboration needs that Google Groups promised but never delivered on.


Light the Fire: Learning Through “Sparks”

Google+ in EductionA feature of Google+ that has great potential in the classroom is “Sparks.”
“Sparks brings you stories on the things you love from all across the Web, so it’s easy to strike up meaningful conversations with your friends.”
Setting up your Sparks is super easy. Simply type in some key words into the search box and Google+ builds a stream of information for you. Sharing these links with your circles takes two clicks.

Google+ Sparks LogoGoogle+ is designed to enhance what some are calling the “alive web” which attempts to remove as many of the barriers to spontaneous conversation as possible. The purpose of Sparks is to give you something to talk about and discuss.

In an educational setting Sparks would provide an interesting way for students to follow research topics, obtaining information from sources that they may not have considered previously. Helpful articles can quickly be shared to the other members of the group if a circle has been created for them.

While the idea behind Sparks is great, it has a lot of growing up to do before it will be a compelling tool for anyone to use. Sparks could become a more powerful and useful feature of Google+ with a few additions:

  • Make sparks more like Google custom search, allow the explicit exclusion or inclusion of specific websites.
  • Integrate Google Reader into Sparks to read and share your favorite feeds directly in Google+.
  • Enable Spark sharing. Currently you can only share a specific article, not an entire spark.

Another important unanswered question is how Sparks content is chosen. Google Engineer DeWitt Clinton provided only a very cursory explanation in the Google+ help forum:

“[It’s a] new algorithms over a new corpus. Still very much in flux and being further expanded and tuned. I’m sure we’ll give a tech talk eventually about the technology behind Sparks, but this is very early days still.”

Google+ Sharing SparksSeveral bloggers have mentioned that the results returned by Sparks appear very similar, but not identical, to a Google New search. Searching for very narrow search terms such as a specific person or a school may not return any results.

For right now, Sparks leaves a lot to be desire. Without customization or a way to fine-tune the returned results, its power is limited. In an educational setting Sparks has great potential as a news aggregator which could assist students with research reports. Adding the ability to include specific RSS feeds would also provide a way for teachers and school administrators to push content such as homework reminders and project directions directly to students.

Set up some sparks. See what you find. Perhaps it will start a conversation with some friends!


Circle Me Up: Exploring Circles in Google+

We’ve added a few new verbs to the English lexicon in the past few years: first, we began to “friend” people. Then we began to “follow” people. Here is another one: “circle me.”

One of the distinct advantages Google+ has over social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is the ability to precisely communicate with groups of people. Google calls it “targeted sharing.” While this is possible in Facebook it’s rather cumbersome and clunky. Twitter relies on hashtags which work well, but does not allow for private group messaging.

Google+ Circles

Creating Circles in Google+

In Google+, a “circle” is a group that you create. There are a few default groups that are created for you, but you can create as many additional circles as you would like. Organizing people into your circles is as easy as dragging and dropping their profile photo onto the circle. For specific instructions on how to setup your circles, I recommend viewing yesterday’s post by Chad Kafka which contains three excellent screencast tutorials.

Circles enable custom filtering of messages, “targeted sharing” as Google calls it. Each of your posts can be sent to all, some, or none of your circles:

  • Private Message: visible only to the person you specify by typing in their email address.
  • Public: available to anyone with access to Google+
  • Individual Circles: visible only to people you have added to the circle.
  • Extended Circles: visible to the people in the circle and to the people in their circles.

Google+ Reshare Warning

Have you ever sent a private message to someone through a social network that was then re-posted publicly? A sticky situation likely ensued. The Google Engineers have thought through this situation by allow the author of a post to restrict the ability to re-post. For messages that are re-postable, a friendly reminder asks you to consider your action before it’s to late.

Accepting someone as a friend on Facebook is a big deal. Once you accept them, they have full access to whatever information you have added into your profile, unless you’ve created limited profiles (which most people haven’t). Their friend request obligates you to share everything with them. The same thing with Twitter. Once someone follows you, you, they see everything you post. In Google+, when someone adds you, they don’t receive access to anything unless you explicitly give it to them. You can even specify how much of your public profile individual circles can view. You are in control, not the people who follow, friend, or circle you.

Google+ Disable Resharing

When viewed through the lens of education, circles make a lot of sense. The lines of professional and personal are easily blended on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. A message is either public to your entire network or private to only one individual. Circles makes it possible to tailor the message to your audience with out needing to created separate accounts for your personal and professional life. Those pictures from last weekend? You probably should only share those with your immediate friends. Your latest blog post probably deserves a wider audience.

Targeted Sharing in Google+The big question is when Google+ will be rolled out to Google Apps for Education customers. No one knows for sure, but several reports indicate that it will be in the coming months, not years. Once available, here are some ways that circles could be used in an educational setting:

  • Create a circle for each class that you teach. Quickly share links, documents, videos, and assignments with students.
  • Allow students to create circles for group projects. They can easily communicate about the project and share resources. When the project is done, the circle is removed.
  • For teachers who have multiple sections of the same class, mix your students into discussion circles. The circle makes the discussion possible and is easy to monitor.
  • Circles provide an excellent informal collaborative space for departments to share ideas, tips and ask questions.
  • School administrators can create a circle for an entire grade to easily and simply send message to a large number of students without spamming the rest of the school.
  • Circles makes it easy to communicate to members of a team or other extracurricular event.

There are a few features that could make Circles even better:

  • Integrate circles with Apps for Ed “groups”. This would allow for the simple creation of a circle with all of the members of a grade, class, department, committee, etc.
  • Allow for document sharing to a circle.
  • Share a form directly with the members of a circle.
  • Allow the creation of an “inner circle” which would allow for breakout groups within a larger group.
  • The ability to create a circle in a single click based on an existing structure such as a Twitter list, members of a Google Site, contributors to a document, commenters on a blog, etc.

Google+ has introduced a new twist onto sharing and managing the publication of information with Circles. It appears to have great potential. Not everyone agrees, however. In a thought full post, blogger David Winer explains,

“You might feel a rush to organize your friends into categories when you start to use it. But you’ll give up after a dozen or so, as soon as you hit one that defies categorization. You’ll say to yourself “I’ll come back to this later.” You won’t.” [Source]

David goes on to argue that part of the popularity of Twitter and Facebook is the lack of organization. People are lazy, and don’t want to organize their networks, I agree. However, privacy is becoming an increasing concern of many web-users and “noise” on social networks is also becoming very noisy. Time will tell if laziness will overrule organization.

If Google+ flops like a Wave, one thing is clear: Google has pushed the issue of “targeted sharing” to the front of the conversation. The other big social media networks will likely respond with a solution of their own and that’s good news for everyo

Google+ In Education

Google+ in EductionLast week Google re-entered the social media field with the launch of Google+. Initial reactions have been positive, a good sign for Google which has struggled to find it’s place in social media. 

What does Google+ mean for educators? For students? For schools? This is one of the topics that the EdReach team will be exploring this week.

This week we will be featuring a series of posts related to Google+, from a basic overview for those who haven’t had a chance to explore yet, to more in-depth discussions of the features of Google+. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Tuesday: An Intro to Google+
  • Wednesday: Circle Me Up: Exploring “circles”
  • Thursday: Let’s Hangout: connecting through “hangouts”
  • Friday: Light the fire: learning through “sparks”
  • Saturday: Going Mobile with Google+
  • Sunday: Where can we go from here?

It’s important to note that Google+ isn’t even a week old. We are still experimenting and exploring. Additionally, as with most Google products released in Beta, features and services are likely to change, evolve, and improve in the coming months.

If you haven’t been able to explore Google+, now you can: access is now available to anyone. Click here to sign up. Check back with the EdReach Crew and we’ll keep you up to speed on what is happening and how Google+ will impact teachers, students, and school.

I let my students grade me.

At the end of the year I ask my students to complete a course evaluation. They typically enjoy this because I tell them that this is their opportunity to give me a grade for my performance as a teacher. I take this survey seriously and try to make adjustments the following year based on the feedback that I get. In typical high school fashion some students leave suggestions that are completely ridiculous (“let us mess around more”), impossible (“let’s have class outside all the time”), and just plain funny (“get rid of all your plants and animals”). Others, are helpful.

Of all the questions that I ask, these are the ones that I pay most attention to:

  • What was your overall experience in class this year?
  • Did you have to think in order to do well in this class?
  • Did Mr. Sowash teach using a variety of different methods?

This year I also added a question asking students to describe my class using one word. There were lots of creative responses! You can see the results in the word-cloud in the infographic below (click to enlarge).


2011 Course Evaluation Infographic

Course evaluations are a humbling yet informative exercise. Teachers spend an entire year grading their students, it seems appropriate that at least one time during the year, the students should have the opportunity to grade their teachers. Accountability can be painful, but it is also a stimulus for growth.

The usefulness of these evaluations is expended when they are used annually. Last year I gave the same evaluation. As I compare the results year to year I can see areas of strength and weakness. I posted my evaluation from 2010 on my personal blog. There are some remarkable similarities!

If you would like to try your own class evaluation, here are a few tools to get you started:

  • Here is the template for my evaluation which was created using Google Docs Spreadsheet. The associated form can be accessed via URL, embedded in a class page, or emailed out.
  • There are several neat wordcloud generators on the web. Wordle and Tagul are two that I have used.