Reflections on a year of Blended Learning with 1:1 Chromebooks
Physics teachers have a unique privilege in most high school settings. Most of us work with students that have elected to take our academic course, and with the exception of a growing number of physics first programs, we teach older students. Consequently, we tend to serve a population of learners that are more likely to match our enthusiasm for ideas, and entertain our whimsical diversions than might an average sampling of the student body as a whole. Many of us take advantage of the opportunity presented by this context to innovate with novel uses of technology in our practice. I am no exception to that rule.
When my idea of teaching physics in a one to one setting with Chromebooks was met with enthusiasm by both my colleagues and my administration eighteen months ago, I jumped in with both feet. Now, in April, at the cusp of another punishing two weeks of low quality standardized testing, it is time to reflect on the first year of the blend.
I will begin with the least important aspect of the review – the devices. Chromebooks are an excellent machine for all day use of cloud-based applications. There is very little that cannot be done in the cloud, and there is very little in the cloud that can’t be done on a Chromebook. The Samsung series 5 device never failed to last an entire day (although there were brief times between classes when students plugged the machines into the charging cart, preventing a true test of the battery life). The screen size is appropriate for both video content and the creation of student work. And perhaps most importantly, the Chromebook management console enabled us to set permissions and ghost apps system-wide from anywhere that has a web connection. I am a fan. To read my love inspired poetry about Chromebooks, take a visit to Jennie Magiera’s Chicago Public Schools’ Chromebook PLC blog.
My teaching team chose a difficult path. We created nearly all of our own content, and we have done so as we have been teaching the course. I sought advice from other, more experienced blenders before we entered this school year. All of them suggested that we take at least a full summer to create our content before blending. We ignored that advice.
The content my colleagues have created varies from good to excellent. The process forced a re-writing of many tired laboratory experiences, and inspired some re-thinking about ways to include more reasoning and writing in our curriculum. My brilliant colleagues deserve all of the credit for that. I was responsible for screencasting mini lectures. These varied in quality from acceptable to embarrassing. Using Camtasia to screencast over Google presentations was quick, easy, and helped us feel that we were providing a backbone for the course, but the lectures (thankfully short) were uninspiring and are of poor production quality. My worst fear about these lectures is that because they are there, we will use them again.
To enable an environment that allowed for student’s to move at their own pace, we used Gooru to host our content and serve it to the students in playlists. The Gooru platform offers excellent curated content, and is ripe and ready for the forthcoming Common Core standards in many K-12 areas, but was not consistent enough for our needs in meeting the existing mile wide and inch deep standards for physics in California. Gooru gets an A+, California’s standards for science get a C-.
Google Apps, inside of the managed domain, with Hapara’s Teacher Dashboard and Chrome Remote Control sitting on top enabled us to easily interact with students and monitor their progress. (Full disclosure – I work with the Hapara Team) Students easily learned to use Drive, Blogs, Gmail, and even Google Plus. We easily tracked their progress and communications. One shocking aspect of going digital is just how much text is produced by your students in a given year. Those forty thousand documents don’t go away when everything is digital. The nearly one million communications are all documented.
Changes in Practice
I made a mistake in the beginning. I thought that if I oriented the students to the different ways that they could engage with the material, provided them a structured choice on how they could spend their time, and allowed them to take exams when they felt ready, that they would hum like busy little bees and one or two of them would probably win the National Science fair. Stop laughing.
That didn’t happen. I pulled a rookie teacher move and had to pull in the reins half way through the first semester. Several students in each class took the “move at your own pace” talk to mean that they could choose to do nothing. Oops. Fortunately, I did not lose too much respect when I brought more structure to the room. Timed station work seemed to be a good compromise: 20 minutes of all together time, 20 minutes of content engagement, and 50 minutes of either laboratory time or problem solving (10 minutes to check in and out machines and clean up). We operate in a block schedule. Remote Control helped significantly with monitoring student activity and guided me to where students needed help.
I know that more autonomous engagement is very possible. Ester Wojicki facilitates this in a journalism course at Palo Alto High School in a way that everyone who has ever seen it describes as magic. I would like to excuse myself by saying that physics is not engaging for everyone, and that a more interdisciplinary approach to learning is natural for learners, but I know that I have a lot to learn about facilitating learning in a highly differentiated environment. Or perhaps it is that I have a lot to unlearn, having taught in a largely traditional fashion for fourteen years.
Post STAR test, we plan to do some project based learning. This has been the pattern for the last ten years; mask our content marathon with as much student engagement as we can until mid April, take the STAR test, then spend five weeks on cool projects that really engage the kids in the way we would like to have done all year.
This year, the sky is the limit for the projects during the last five weeks. I am hoping a few students will put our Arduinos to use with Peter Sand’s Many Labs. I’d like to see what can be done with WeVideo and Youtube; maybe some Myth Busters parodies? And I am really excited to see what Google Plus does to our ethics debates.
There is no way I could go back to a classroom without a high degree of student autonomy and significant choice. The technology most definitely enabled this to happen. However, I would advise anyone considering the blend and hoping for a change in practice that inspires more student autonomy to heed the advice I ignored; get your content digitally ready before you take the plunge. Then you will have more time and energy for the most important work, engaging with students and their efforts.