Finding a School’s Digital Identity

In a discussion I had with my headmaster on Friday we touched on something a lot of people are mentioning about Planner, in that it’s the first easy steps for a school towards their own digital identity. This is one of those untouchable things that can go a long way towards improving student education, but it goes misunderstood because it a new concept.

Let’s use universities for example. I went to Stony Brook University because it’s a great chemistry school. Other people chose party schools, sports schools, or law schools. The best universities in our country have an identity, or something their school is particularly good at. Some schools, like Stanford University or University of Phoenix, have begun to move this identity online, and are recognized as advancing digital learning.

High schools have identities too, and while they’re not nationally known (for the most part), they certainly are felt locally. Students attending Chaminade High School know that it’s one of the premier lacrosse schools in the nation. Students attending certain private schools know they are amongst the elite of their community (in theory, at least). A digital identity can go a long way towards a school successfully making the transition to a digital workspace, because it provides a subliminal purpose for students to pursue their studies. A student in a class utilizing blogging as a work submission tool is going to be more likely to put more time and effort into their blog while attending a school with a digital identity than while in a school without one. Every teacher has seen this on a small scale in their classrooms, since each classroom has an identity and work that revolves around that identity tends to be better.

I think schools should think about this concept while pushing out digital learning programs because, unlike most educational technology that comes and goes, a school’s identity is generational and lasts for longer than any Smartboard, iPad, or Chromebook.

Designing A New Gradebook

In designing Planner, we wanted to make sure teachers could pick it up and use it for everything their paper planners could be used for. By far the hardest part of this was the Gradebook, and we’re ready to show you what it looks like. Those of us who have ever used an online gradebook have probably been frustrated by numerous issues, and part of the research we did was to survey some teachers and test various software items ourselves to pick out what prevented the use of each tool. We found some common trends and specifically addressed these issues in our design.

Data Entry

Entering form data into an iPad or computer can be a huge pain, and anyone who has tried in a gradebook before knows this first hand. Apple’s Numbers does a pretty good job of making it painless, and a big part of it is the keyboard. We designed a customized keyboard for entering grades that makes the process user-friendly and streamlines it for the teacher.


Grade Reporting

The most important thing an app can do that a book can’t is provide real time grade data about student performance. This powerful asset is invaluable to teachers, and anyone who has used a system that does it effectively can attest to it. I’ve used SMART response clickers in my classroom for about three years now, and the ability to provide immediate and graphical feedback is amazing. We took the traditional gradebook style with rows and columns and gave it a small makeover, visualizing overall student progress with a subtle progress bar.


Main Gradebook view in Planner.

The progress bars were a nice touch, however we didn’t feel like that was good enough. This led us to the most exciting feature of Planner, our progress reports. With one tap, student grade reports can be sent wherever they need to go through Mail, which makes keeping parents, guidance counselors , students, and resource room teachers informed a breeze. As we can see, Johnny Depp is doing pretty well in my class.

Student View

Progress Reports in Planner

Sometimes, a book just doesn’t cut it. We’re thrilled with the way our Gradebook came out and I’ve never had an easier time sending progress reports than I had while using it. Let us know what you think on Facebook and Twitter.

The Paperless Dream

A colleague of mine, W.J. Moccio, is someone I have a lot of respect for. She is an older teacher without about 2 years left in her career, but she is continually trying to innovate in her classroom with new technology, even when she could probably be on cruise control if she wanted to be. We talk a lot about what drives her innovation and adaptation of technology and she frequently mentions that her students are the ones that inspire her. They’re always showing her new gadgets and she’s always eager to learn and use them herself. She currently teaches AP Environmental Science at GHS.

In one of our recent conversations we were talking about the latest at SnT and what she was doing in her classroom. We started talking about the shared iPad system being used by the integrated science classes at school when she created more inspiration for me. She confessed that if she could have one thing before she retired it would be to teach a paperless class. I was touched by this because for so many teachers, the first reaction towards paperless classrooms involves rejection due to increased workloads, learning curve, or logistical concerns. Not for Moccio though, she just wants the technology to make it happen. It seemed like a good reason to post some tips for her or any other teacher going down this route for the first time.

Not 1:1? No Problem

A lot of people get hung up on the, “what if my students don’t have access to the right technology at home?” question. This is a mistake and a disservice to those students that actually don’t. Whether or not they want this to be the case, every job that hires them for which school is a requirement is going to require cloud computing skills. Nobody is going to train them in Google Docs or the like. That aside, the truth is that, save for the most extraordinary districts, most students have a computer at home that they can use, or a cell phone they can watch lectures on, or a library at school/in the area they can go to for access. For the students who really are in trouble there are solutions. Most assignments that you would have students complete at home can be handwritten or on paper, and you can just print them out. Don’t let the perceived lack of technology prevent what ultimately will save money and paper while preparing students for the real world.

Don’t Get Too Fancy…At First

Innovation is great but for whatever reason a lot of people have this idea that they either have to go “all-in” on the technology or not go at all. Going paperless is already a huge move, there’s no need to also retool every single one of your assignments to match the paperless motive. Students can still complete papers, readings, research, and yes, worksheets, online if you so choose. The reality is that some students will have trouble with the switch and will need time to master the skills needed in a paperless classroom, so providing them with familiar assignments at first is actually a good idea. Of course, feel free to up the ante once the you and your students become comfortable.

Include Students in the Process

This one came as a surprise to me, but we might as well take advantage of it while it’s still “cool”. Going paperless is something the students take a lot of pride in because it’s something all of their friend aren’t doing yet. Involve them in the process. Have them track data about how much paper they’ve saved. Have them come up with assignment ideas that involve going online. Something really powerful that you can do is, in the event that you succeed and go entirely paperless, at the end of the year create a poster conveying that it was the only piece of paper used all year by your students. Then, upload and save it on your class webpage.

The data involved with going paperless could be the subject of another entire post, but it’s clear that the benefits far outweigh the costs. For so many teachers who are cautious about doing this, I encourage you to read Moccio’s story again and join her in the quest to eliminate paper.

Some Paperless Infographics Part One

I have been keeping casual data while teaching our new Integrated Science class about how many pieces of paper I’ve uploaded and had students work with digitally, as opposed to copying them. Through a TED talk on the Great Pacific Garbage patch, I stumbled upon the work of photographer Chris Jordan, who does some really interesting work. He takes these enormous mass consumption statistics and photographs them in a way that makes us feel what 410,000 paper cups every minute actually looks like. The students were touched by his work, so I decided to have them do similar projects in which they calculate some statistics about the amount of paper we save in our Integrated Science class, the amount of money saved in our class, and the amount of paper and money we could save if every student had an iPad in the school.  Then, they turned one of these statistics into an infographic that conveyed the information in a way that impacts the views like Jordan’s work does. Some students went overboard. One student calculated the amount of money that could be saved by our school if it went 1:1, including textbook, ink, and supply costs. Then, she calculated how many schools this could build in Africa (7). On her infographic depicting this information, she used the slogan “Smart choices make the world smarter”. I thought that was brilliant.

The activity wound up being far more successful than I thought and I’ve been trying to figure out why all week. I don’t think it was a particularly unique or innovative activity, and after a week of thinking I’ve come to a conclusion that’s simple. These two things could probably elevate any class activity as well.

#1 Make It Local

I think one of the reasons for the success of this infographic activity was the locality. Students calculated how much paper they saved, not some irrelevant group of people in another state. It’s a technique that’s not unique in any way, because as any teacher knows, the more relevant an activity is for students, the more they’ll tend to enjoy it and learn from it. This was a pretty simple way of making learning about environmental science local for students.

#2 Use a Compelling Real Life Example

The biggest reason for the success of the activity may be Jordan’s work. The photography is so powerful and touching, it was easy to see the impact it had on student faces as they viewed it. While completing their infographics, the influence was crystal clear. Displaying some sort of high impact or touching example of work they’re about to complete, students got a great idea of what highly effective work looks like.

None of these techniques are at all groundbreaking, innovative, or unique in any way. They are something that educators need to remember though, and those are proven, highly effective methods. These types of things are what we strive to do at Slate & Tablets. Along those same lines, we have some exciting new features to reveal from our planner in the next month as we gear up for release.  Stay tuned!

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