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.