Archive for Software/web

Of Mice, Men, and Instagram

Originally published on edSocialMedia


How can middle school students begin to recognize complexity and empathize with characters in literature? In a conventional approach, a teacher might pose thought-provoking questions to students and draw their attention to key passages in the story. However, this approach does not guide all students to deepen their understanding of the characters. Young adolescents are often still developing empathy during the middle school years, but the ability to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of a character is essential to understanding literature.


University Prep English teacher Carl Faucher uses social media to help students think about the characters in Of Mice and Men. To begin, students select one character to follow through the book and then create a new account in that character’s name on their preferred social media platform. As students read the book, they pay special attention to the character’s thoughts and inner dialogue. Students then write one post online for each chapter of the book.


Students choose a variety of platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. They tend to like the familiar format and enthusiastically go about their work. Some post the minimum number required, whereas others write far more. Instagram users in particular find an opportunity to communicate visually, either by selecting stills from the movie version to accompany each thought or selecting more abstract, evocative imagery. Some choose to make the assignment social, following their classmates and liking or commenting on their posts.


Faucher asks students to avoid summarizing the text but rather write what the characters were actually thinking at different points in the book. Those who adopt the persona of the character show the most evidence of learning. Faucher notes, “students developed empathy for the character better than if they had answered conventional questions about the text. They got through the black and white of good and bad and explored complexities of the characters and their relationships.”


Conventional reading questions are grounded in the language of the discipline — academic discourse. Students better learn to think analytically and identify literary conventions such as themes and foreshadowing if they are provided with accessible steps to build upon. The social media introduction allows students to apply an established strength, “to speak the language that they are speaking outside of school.” Having gained some understanding, students are better able to build up to the more complex assignments later in the unit: a mock trial in which George is taken to court, and an expository essay that focuses on character analysis.


“With the advent of social media, our paths of communication are changing the ways we speak, communicate, and express ourselves.” While some may bemoan the decline of long form writing, Faucher takes advantage of the popular microblogging medium to help students achieve the learning goals of seventh grade English.

Reflections on Computer Science

We at U Prep are partway through the redesign of the school’s computer science program, to reimagine it as the study of foundational principles of computational thinking, accessible to all students regardless of prior background, and inclusive of highly engaging specialities such as robotics and website development.

The full plan includes three computer science elective classes, the integration of computer science activities into required middle school classes, and advising student clubs in robotics and other technical pursuits. This way, we will give all students the opportunity to do computer science and also provide those interested in further study an array of engaging opportunities at more and less technical levels.

While we put the full plan into place, we decided to offer a computer science course to students this year, even though our new model was not yet fully developed. Student interest was very high, and teaching a class would give us first-hand experience with developing curricula around these new principles. We staffed the course by hiring a subject-matter expert to partner with me as the experienced teacher. At the same time, we began the search for a full-time computer science teacher for next year.

We designed the course to teach fundamental concepts in algorithmic processing and data structure design through programming activities, so that students would receive explicit instruction in foundational principles of computer science while also learning programming skills. Programming was the most common learning activity, and key concepts included use of functions to repeatedly perform tasks, thinking logically and sequentially, breaking a problem into smaller parts, and figuring out how to organize real world data into structured elements. We made explicit links between the problems students were solving and the underlying concepts and thinking skills that are used throughout computer science.

We wanted students to learn to program in an environment that they would be able to use subsequently in future courses and their personal pursuits, to mirror how computing is now used in all fields of study and professions. We chose JavaScript as the development language for several reasons. The web-based applications that students commonly use (e.g., Facebook, Google Drive), are written in JavaScript. Study of JavaScript helped demystify software development, as students recognized the input elements and output formats that they created. While not an entirely strict language, JavaScript has consistent enough structure and data typing that we could teach these principles perfectly well. The development environment (Komodo) is free and multi-platform, ensuring that students could develop using their own computers and continue to use what they learned after the course was complete. The output environment (Chrome web browser) is familiar, yet students gained a new level of understanding of web page structure and performance as they created website software and debugged it using Chrome’s developer tools.

Most class time was spent writing code to solve specific problems, small ones at first and larger ones later. Students analyzed grade level enrollments, Sounders FC player salaries, and animated bouncing balls and streaming bubbles. Each activity built up students’ understanding of programming constructs, input and output, functions, parameters, and return values, conditionals and loops, arrays and objects, speed and memory usage, and more.

Students completed both a substantial individual project and a self-designed group project. In each, we explored how to analyze a real-world problem and design a solution, how to create, test, and refine software, and how to bring a project to completion. The group project introduced new dynamics: how to share, divide, and reconcile project design and development tasks among team members, and how to use an online, collaborative development environment to work on a project within a team.

Students also completed an individual research activity, in which they found and interview a computer science professional and made a short presentation to their classmates. This helped broaden students’ concept of what it means to do computer science work. Not all interview subjects were software developers, and a number applied computer science to other fields. Students learned that computer science is useful in all pursuits.

Bubbles activity
Practice with arrays, objects, Canvas, loops, and functions

50% More O’s Than Moodle

I first rolled out Moodle to a school in 2005. Since then, Moodle has admirably served the schools at which I have worked, providing a powerful, (cash) free, low-maintenance course web site system to teachers. Unlike many open-source systems, Moodle provided everything teachers required and just plain worked out of the box. Moodle became popular just as Web 2.0 began to go mainstream among teachers.

In the last few years, new learning management systems suitable for secondary schools have appeared, some substantially re-imagining what a 21st century LMS should do. During this time, Moodle has made only minor end-user improvements, failing to keep up with innovations in web site usability and organization. Over the same period of time, LMS use in secondary schools has become standard practice, so that schools are increasingly willing to pay for an LMS, eliminating Moodle’s chief advantage over other systems.

Next year, University Prep will replace Moodle with Schoology. Our evaluation also included Haiku, Canvas, Edmodo, and eBackpack. Our primary criteria were: 1) ease of use; 2) quality of Moodle import; 3) strength of iPad app. Schoology performed best in all three categories.

Schoology Haiku Canvas Edmodo eBackpack
 Ease of use  excellent  excellent  good  excellent  good
 Moodle import  excellent  good  fair  none  none
 iPad app  excellent  none  fair  excellent  excellent

Why were these three criteria most important to our school? We require all faculty to post syllabus and assignment information to our LMS, so it has to be straightforward for the less technically-inclined to use. This was unfortunately not the case with Moodle, leading to many complaints and limited use.

The new LMS needed to import Moodle successfully, because many teachers had put a lot of work into their existing courses, and it would not be acceptable to start from an empty course website.

The iPad app had to be very strong, because we are launching a 1:1 iPad program in the Middle School next fall. Our new LMS had to have both a great website presentation for the Upper School and a great iPad app, ideally including all of the features available on the web site.

The other LMS’s we evaluated were all excellent, and many schools might find them to be a better match, depending on their evaluation criteria. Haiku offered the best teacher control over the web page layout. Its block system allows one to place any kind of content in any location on the page. Canvas looked very solid in a web browser, but it imported Moodle content into the Modules category (instead of Pages), and the iPad app doesn’t yet support Modules. Edmodo offered a similar presentation to Schoology, but it simply did not import Moodle in any manner. eBackpack offered terrific document workflow for our Middle School, but its web-based presentation seemed inadequate for our Upper School.

Schoology both offers improved usability for core features as well as several very exciting enhancements that may allow our teachers to substantially advance their LMS use. Many of these address a central problem with Moodle: students don’t check it.

In Schoology, announcements and events have higher billing than course content. This is such a better match to how students think about their coursework. Who needs to see the entire syllabus every time you want to access tonight’s assignment? Course announcements can include text, polls, audio and video, making it possible to set up an engaging prompt to start homework or precede a class meeting.

Audio and video recording work reliably both in-browser and on the iPad, making a decade-long ambition a reality (who remembers NanoGong?). Language teachers in particular are very excited about video-based announcements and class discussions.

Students can control when and how they receive course notifications, for example through the web site, email, mobile app alerts, or text message. This should make it so much easier for students to stay abreast of the latest activity in their courses.

Schoology offers just one kind of assignment (Moodle had four). Electronic submission is easy to set up and use. The in-browser file viewer provides many tools for teachers to comment on student work: text, highlighter, strikethrough tool, sticky note, and pen. Our Upper School teachers will be able to write on student work with a tablet and a stylus! Very exciting. iPad users can open files in Notability, write on it, and then send it back to Schoology.

Schoology runs on iPad, iPhone, and Android, making it possible for students to submit work and teachers to manage courses from their tablets or phones. We know that many users work more actively online when they can access content using their phones.

Course migration takes place in July. I’ll let you know how it goes come September.



Mobile Theme

Catlin Gabel has launched a mobile theme for its website. If you visit the site on your mobile phone, you should automatically see the mobile interface and have an opportunity to add an icon to your home screen. Please let me know if you run into bugs or usability issues on the mobile site!

Mobile theme or responsive theme?

The mobile theme technique has been around for a couple of years. The site autodetects the mobile device and loads a completely different theme for the site. More recently, developers have adopted responsive theming, where page elements adjust to the smaller screen size, for example by reflowing items or scaling down images.

A mobile theme made more sense for Catlin Gabel than a responsive theme. We were quoted a project cost three times larger to create the responsive theme, because this would have involved reworking the desktop theme. Creating a simpler, separate theme for mobile devices had a more reasonable price. Our current desktop theme is nearly three years old, so the school will likely redesign the entire site theme within a couple of years, so this mobile theme is temporary.

Getting around

We designed a new navigation system for the mobile theme, due to space constraints and the different priorities of mobile users. Site analytics revealed that users visited the calendar, athletics, and directory pages more often on phones than other devices, so we made these more prominent. At the same time, users visit the rest of the site in a similar pattern to desktop users. A single jump menu takes advantage of the scrolling select interface popular on phone operating systems, while providing access first to the most popular pages in the site and then all of the major site pages in alphabetical order.

Unlike most mobile themes, our interface allows one to get to just about any page on the site without having to switch to the desktop view. The mobile site is fully featured. Still, the ubiquitous “desktop view” link at the bottom allows for times when user prefers the desktop view.

While the mobile site has some issues, it achieves the immediate need of improving the mobile user experience while keeping the cost reasonable.

Mobile Traffic

Check out the growth of mobile traffic since 2009. Mobile devices now account for 10% of all traffic to our website. Mobile traffic rises at two times each year: September and January.

(Click on the image to view a larger version.)

Mobile users visit the same top pages as computer users, with one exception. Our online family and employee directory is the sixth most popular page for mobile users and ninth for all users. Update: when I remove iPads from the mobile category, the directory and athletics schedules both move up a couple of positions in the top pages list.

Will mobile traffic eventually exceed computer traffic? I don’t think this data much helps us understand that.

Currently, the Catlin Gabel website displays the same on computers and mobile devices, but we are working on a mobile theme to present mobile users with a more usable interface. It will be interesting to observe whether that affects website overall traffic and popular pages.

Class Maps in Google Apps

Maps has been one of my favorite Google Apps to use in fourth and fifth grade. Students conduct research on a topic, create placemarks, and add descriptions, images, and sometimes links. The collaboration feature allows the class to quickly create a visual guide to any topic, for example the agricultural products of Oregon. The work environment is media-rich, collaborative, and fast. The mapping skills are very transferable to other subjects.

View Map Of Oregon in a larger map

In the following map, each student designed a fruit salad from a list of ingredients and then mapped the distance to the place of origin of each fruit.

View Fruit Salad in a larger map

Highly Personal Online Instruction

Online learning normally carries a reputation for being highly impersonal. One may study within a class of 100 or more, making it impossible for a teacher to provide individualized instruction or assessment. What form should online learning take in independent schools? Four online learning providers gained attention at the NAIS annual conference last week, particularly during NAIS president Pat Bassett’s opening remarks and Bill Gates’ keynote address.

Global Online Academy
Online School for Girls
Stanford University Online High School
eSchool Network

In addition to high academic standards and inquiry-based instruction, these online learning organizations strive to maintain the highly personal qualities of independent school instruction and learning support. However, they do so using different methods.

In a joint white paper, Global Online Academy and Online School for Girls write:

Independent schools teach the whole child and our schools hold relationships sacred. Online independent schools are no different.

Our teachers communicate regularly with families and schools so students get the support that they need.

GOA and OSG offer fully online, mostly asynchronous classes. How do they build strong teacher-student relationships without synchronous class meetings? OSG and GOA teachers frequently send individual email messages to students, hold office hours, and schedule one-on-one Skype conversations. This degree of student interaction is only possible with small class sizes and a commitment to regular teacher-student interaction. Teachers also sustain presence through recorded video and discussion forum facilitation.

Stanford University Online High School

Stanford runs an accredited, independent high school through the Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY). Many students take a full load of online classes through the program, and some take selected courses to augment regular school attendance. Live, video-based, twice weekly, whole class seminar classes serve as the central instructional feature.

Participation in these sessions provides the full measure of what the OHS academic program has to offer and the abilities it fosters in its students.  In discussion seminar, students participate in fast-moving conversations, stake out, defend, and critique positions on their feet, and participate in the instructor’s modeling of inquiry in a discipline.

Stanford is piloting a higher-resolution version of the video platform with selected schools, intending to make the seminar experience even more immersive. Stanford believes in the central importance of the seminar-style discussion to the university-level class experience as well as the necessity of high-definition video to make this possible in an e-learning environment.

(quote source)

eSchool Network

This network is not a school, nor are its classes fully online. Rather, the network facilitates the development and sharing of electronic instructional materials for teachers to use in blended learning environments in their schools.

Resources in Digital Alexandria are intended for blended/hybrid classroom environments that combine “face-to-face” learning time with “online” learning time. eSchool Network is not a stand-alone school; think of us as a community hub. (source)

According to director Kevin Ruth, schools are integrating these resources at different levels, some using the online resources to enhance full-time classes, and others reducing the number of face-to-face instructional periods each week. The teacher-student relationship is supported primarily by maintaining face-to-face instructional time.

(quote source)

Electronic Re-enrollment

Last year at this time, 100 re-enrollment forms were outstanding. This year, we have only 10. This has significantly improved the school’s ability to forecast returning enrollment for next year and send acceptances to those seeking admission.

We used DocuSign to bulk send eSignature enrollment contracts to families and manage their completions. The process did not go entirely smoothly the first time through. DocuSign is in the process of transitioning from a desktop client to an entirely web-based system. Bulk sending to multiple recipients per envelope is only available in the desktop client edition, whereas shared fields and conditional fields are only available in the web version. We are hopeful that  the web client will be able to bulk send to multiple recipients by next year!

Underage Students on Google and Facebook

Google is cracking down on underage accounts. Young students who accurately reported their age when creating a GMail account are finding themselves shut out without warning. The account closure is swift and complete. With a parent’s help, a child can reactivate an account. At this point, child and parent face a choice: comply with Google’s action to shut down the account or falsify the child’s age in the account and keep it open. I suspect that many will choose the latter.

Students who have their account within a Google Apps domain are better off. The Apps domain administrator creates accounts, does not report user age, and bears responsibility to ensure the privacy of student information. Google expects schools to secure parent consent for under-13 use of Google Apps. At a minimum, Google stores each student’s name and email address, but of course the account will also include content that the student has uploaded in the course of their work.

Google Apps domains are not just limited to schools. Any domain owner can set up a free Google Apps domain, though these are limited to 10 user accounts, and advertisements are displayed. Buying a domain and setting up free Google Apps allows a family to take greater control of the services and comply with parent consent requirements. Low-cost web hosts make it easy to buy a domain name for the family and use GMail.

What about Google+? Google has just added Plus to Apps, but only for higher-education institutions.

Google provides a form to request access but state that this is not for elementary and secondary schools.

Facebook requires users to report their age when setting up a new account.

Many students falsify their age, often with the support of their parents. Both children and parents want to gain access to the social networking platform in order to keep in touch with each other, relatives, and friends. Companies routinely do not create a way for parents to provide consent for a child to create an account, and in turn for the company to collect information about the child. Facebook also does not provide the option for a school to to administer student accounts with parent consent. I also wonder what lesson students are learning from their parents’ encouragement to falsify their age.


BeautyTips for Drupal forms

The BeautyTips module has become a popular and flexible way to add popup tips to any part of Drupal website pages. Popup tips provide an important usability enhancement to forms, displaying additional information to the user without cluttering the page.

It is simplest to load BeautyTips libraries on every page and add the class “beautytips” to any page element to display its title in a popup. For additional control, one may invoke BeautyTips and define custom styles within your a custom module. Here is an example from our admission website:

In your custom module:

// load beautytips js and define custom style for all admission pages
$options[‘bt_admission_tips’] = array(
‘cssSelect’ => ‘.bb_admission_beautytip’,
‘trigger’ => array(‘hover’),
‘contentSelector’ => ‘$(this).attr(“description”)’,
‘width’ => 350,
‘style’ => ‘hulu’,
‘positions’ => array(‘right’,’top’,’most’),
‘shrinkToFit’ => TRUE,

In your form array:

$form[‘field_name’] = array(
‘#type’      => ‘textfield’,
‘#description’ => t(“Explanatory text for this field. <span class=\”bb_admission_beautytip\” description=\”here is an example tooltip\”>more info</span>”),
‘#required’     => TRUE,

The tooltip appears when you hover over the text (or any other page element, such as an image).

Or define a function for more complicated popups:

  $form[‘grade_apply’] = array(
‘#type’      => ‘select’,
‘#title’        => t(‘Grade for which this student is inquiring’),
‘#options’  =>  _bb_admission_load_grades(),
‘#default_value’ => t($applicant->grade_apply),
‘#description’ => t(“Please note: grade is based on the student’s age on September 1 of the year of entry.” . _bb_admission_tip(‘dob_chart’)),
‘#required’     => TRUE,

// define tooltips for all admission pages
function _bb_admission_tip($tip) {
switch ($tip) {
case ‘dob_chart’:
return ‘ <img
description=”<h3>DOB Chart for ‘ . _bb_next_academic_year() . ‘</h3>
<p><table border=1 cellpadding=3>
<tr valign=top><td><b>Age on Sep 1, ‘ . _bb_next_fall_year() . ‘</b></td><td><b>Grade</b></td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>4</td><td>Preschool</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>5</td><td>Kindergarten</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>6</td><td>First</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>7</td><td>Second</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>8</td><td>Third</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>9</td><td>Fourth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>10</td><td>Fifth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>11</td><td>Sixth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>12</td><td>Seventh</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>13</td><td>Eighth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>14</td><td>Ninth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>15</td><td>Tenth</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>16</td><td>Eleventh</td></tr>
<tr valign=top><td>17</td><td>Twelfth</td></tr>