Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Online Algebra 1

This school year, I have committed to using an online Algebra 1 curriculum developed through the Iowa Communities of Practice initiative. It has been a most interesting endeavor so far.

Forty teachers met in Des Moines at the end of July and modified an NROC online Algebra 1 course. We felt that the online materials were very traditional in their approach and we wanted to add some problem-based instructional tasks and real-world problem-solving to the curriculum.

Nancy Movall, our IaCoPi leader, then had our curriculum uploaded onto a Moodle-hosting site called Resource Iowa. There were many issues with getting the classes onto the Moodle server. I'm not sure what was wrong, but the curriculum was not yet available for us to use when school started in August. I used a variety of materials to review the Unit 1 topics. At Springville, we had some issues with student Google accounts. We needed to change our domain in order to give students email access through Google. This has been a great thing to have because students often need an email account to sign up for web 2.0 tools, such as Wikispaces and the Resource Iowa site. We use the kids' Gmail account information as their log-in information for the site.

I am somewhat frustrated that not all students are using the site at home. Kids will tell me that their web browser blocks pop-ups, which is fixable. Some parents seem unwilling to help their kids gain access to the website because they don't want to modify the pop-up blocker. Other kids now have excuses such as one I received today: "My dad did something and it knocked the internet out at home." Seriously.

I am also frustrated with some of the problems the kids are given in the practice problems and review problems. Some of the questions seem really hard; others seem really easy. I've found that I am much more satisfied with the worksheets I'll type up and give the kids with problems from our old textbook series. The materials I've really liked are the lessons people added when we modified the curriculum this summer. There are so many great resources to use.

Will this move help student scores? Will my students be better, more independent students? The jury is still out on that. I hope so. I know I much prefer not using a textbook daily. I know the kids prefer not to lug such a heavy book around each day either. I don't like the paper shuffle. I wish there was more work online so the kids could have immediate feedback through the computer. But, I have at least looked to do things differently that I have done them before, and that is progress.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Joys and Frustrations of Using Technology

This past summer, I decided that I was going to make my classroom a 1-to-1 classroom where each of my students had a laptop to use.  I wanted to do this because I got involved with the Iowa Communities of Practice Initiative where forty teachers in each of four subject areas:  mathematics, science, social studies, and language arts go together to create a new, 21st century kind of curriculum for freshman-level high school courses.  Our goal was to integrate the use of technology appropriately into our classrooms to take advantage of the many web-based tools and resources that are now available on the Internet.  This initiative was started, I think, by schools across the state of Iowa that had 1-to-1 computer to student initiatives started in their districts.  These districts were looking for ways to get beyond the textbook and really take advantage of the primary tool:  the laptop computer that these districts had put into the hands of their teachers and students.

I was nervous about joining this initiative because my school has not yet made the commitment to go 1-to-1 with computers and students.  But, I have this ornery streak in me that drives me to accomplish what I have set out in my mind that I want to do.  To be honest, it can be a curse.  And, in this case, right now, I would say that the technology is beating me.  Here is my story.

First, I started out by tweeting to see if anyone knew where a person might get laptops for free.  No one responded to my tweet, so I went online and did some searching through Google for "free computers."  What I found was a program through the government called "Computers for Learning" where governmental offices are bound by law to donate used equipment they are replacing to schools or other non-profit groups.  The only thing the group needs to do is pick up or pay for the shipping of the equipment.  I went to our superintendent and convinced him to sign us up for the program.  I said I would take care of processing all the necessary paper work; all he would really have to do is sign the consent forms when we were awarded the technology.

Once we were registered with CFL, I started to request computers.  At first, we received a lot of denials.  I was a little depressed.  One day, though, we received a notice that we had been awarded a couple computers from a governmental agency in Arizona.  I went through the process of agreeing to the transfer of property and then arranged to have the computers shipped via UPS.

In the meantime, I had also enlisted the services of Sean Williams, a father of students in the district and also a network administrator for an area company.  I knew he was pretty tech-savvy and would have good ideas on how we might refurbish the donated computers.  The first laptops, to be honest, were quite old and really not the kind that we could use.  At the time of the request, however, I didn't realize that.  In subsequent requests, I have focused on acquiring Dell laptops.  Sean found that those computers were usable.  Our project got a big shot in the arm with two donations from HUD in Chicago, which donated 20 Dell 610's to us, and from Hickam AFB in Hawaii, which donated 40 Dell's, which range from 600's to 620's, to us.   

One day, Sean and I discussed what our budget was for new operating systems and for any software we might put on the computers.  I told him we had no budget, so he said we would look at open-source solutions for our operating system and web browser.  He did some research and found a Linux-based operating system from Edbuntu.  What is nice about this operating system, is that it is designed for educational use so it has a free version of a word processing program, spreadsheet program, and presentation program.  It is the Edbuntu version of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  Sean also chose to use Firefox as the web browser, which is a nice program and is also open-source.  Finally, I realized that we would need to have Flash and Adobe Reader and possible Real Player on the computers to use videos and read PDF's kids might have for various projects.

Sean also had to do some work to find a program that would allow the computers to interface with an external wireless card.  We needed to order the wireless cards for each usable laptop.  He also suggested we upgrade the RAM to 1GB, which I got approval to do from the technology committee.  Sean made an image of the files and programs he thought we should load onto the computers and saved that image to several DVD's.  By this time, school had started and I was quite tense because the computers were still not in my classroom being used. 

Finally, on Wednesday, August 31, Sean, his daughter Carly, and I met in the HS library and replaced the RAM and plugged in the wireless cards.  Then, Sean ran the DVD's to load the programs on all the computers.  We stored the computers in the new laptop cart the technology committee and our superintendent said I could purchase.  I was so excited because I thought things were finally done and progressing forward.

On Thursday, September 2, my 2nd and 3rd hour English 10 classes tried the laptops.  The issue now is connectivity.  We were able to get a few students onto the system, but kids kept getting dropped by the system.  I thought perhaps it was our distance from the air ports, so on Friday, September 3 (today), I had my English 10 classes work in the library.  Still, we have connectivity issues.  Only half the kids were able to successfully stay connected to the wireless network.  The kids with Macs, which have internal wireless cards, were able to stay connected.  Now, I think the issue might be our external air cards.

Right now, the technology is winning.  I am back in my corner, licking my wounds.  I was so depressed during English class today because I was so frustrated that kids couldn't get to the work they needed to do.  The thought that working from a textbook and doing worksheets is so much easier.  I wouldn't be battling computers every day.  Kids would have something to do each period.  We would have the look of school and productivity.  And, isn't that a good thing?  My gut, though, tells me that if I can stick with this and persevere, that good, deep learning can happen as well with my students and technology.  Today, though, the thought creeped into my head to just give up and go back to the traditional way.  Now I know why a lot of teachers don't try innovative things.  I know why teachers don't use technology.  It is just easier to use textbooks and worksheets and not try something new and different.  Believe me, I am tired and exhausted by the battle.  However, I refuse to lose.  I will not let the machines win!