Monday, June 22, 2009

Five ways to use your VLE / LP to support homework

The Dog Ate My Homework 1 by iirraa used under a Creative Commons License.
Today I randomly received a phone call from someone who'd been recommended to speak to me about using a VLE Learning Platform (must get the terminology correct) to support homework. Well, it might not make you the most popular teacher, but if used well it can support colleagues and students with managing, tracking and even handing in homework. So, without much of a fanfare, and based purely on my thoughts after this morning here are Five Ways to use your VLE or Learning Platform to support homework:
They start from the simplest, and get more complex - actually that depends on your point of view - and I'm talking in Moodle terminology here, but if you're using a different tool then you'll be able to map this onto your system, won't you? Good!
  1. Set up offline assignments to make a comprehensive homework diary
    The simplest form of Assignment in Moodle is the Offline Assignment - there is little or no interactivity in terms of handing in the work, but as a teacher you can use the Description field of the assignment to give useful links to start from, to embed videos to watch, or audio clips to listen to, and provide all of the guidance you'd normally give when handing out a paper-based piece of homework in the classroom. Importantly, set a due date so that the homework will appear in the course's Calendar and Upcoming Events - this way, a student (or their parents if your setup includes parental access) can see what's coming up over the next month / term / year (depending on how far you plan in advance). As the assignment behaves like a normal Moodle assignment, you'll be able to give marks and feedback, which can be stored in the gradebook so that students (and parents... etc) can see all of their feedback & marks in one place - plus as a teacher you get an overview of all homework in the Gradebook.
  2. Set up a Quiz with opening & closing times as a homework
    When setting up a Quiz it's a trivial thing to to set opening and closing times - set these to Friday 5pm and Monday 8am and you've a piece of work which, by definition, has to be done over the weekend. You need to be sure that all of your class has internet access outside of school for this to be valid - if this isn't the case, make arrangements with a local library or explore how students could buddy up outside of school to deal with this. This requires more preparation (of the questions, for a start...) but has the advantage that it's marked automatically (if the question types suit automatic marking). Again, all of the marks end up in your Gradebook (but can be modified if you feel that some attempts merit this...).
  3. Assess contributions to a Forum
    The same "access to online" proviso as #2 applies here, but setting up a forum as "homework" has a bit more bite if you mark responses using the Rating tools built-in (but rarely used) into the Forum module. Such Ratings are recorded in the Gradebook and by default only teachers can Rate/grade forum contributions. It's always a good idea to model appropriate and inappropriate responses first - so that you've got exemplar material to mark against. Ratings can be available as long as the forum's open, or restricted to a particular date range, this might be useful as you are likely to have to work with forums for a while before students get used to the idea that a meaningful response to another student's message is more than just "Yer Mum". It might be worth having a few practice forums so you can effectively manage students (and your) expectations before having an assessed exercise.
  4. Build a glossary together as a class
    The Glossary activity is an under-used activity in Moodle and allows students to build a user-defined dictionary of... well, anything really. You could ask students to contribute to a collaborative glossary of biographical entries for a list of characters in a play, relevant information about places in a series of historical events, or anything really. The key with this sort of exercise is to establish at the start that simply copying material from Wikipedia or Encarta isn't the way to go - so try putting a spin on it by limiting it to a number of words (like Four Word Film Reviews, how about Thirty Word Biographies?). The power of the Glossary is that it can be used throughout your online course, so any time a term in the Glossary occurs - in a Forum post, say - then a link is made to that term's definition which everyone can read. Entries can be graded, so you can set contributing to a glossary as a piece of homework.
  5. Hand in homework online
    This is the sort of activity which most people think of when they think of "Homework on a VLE" - setting an Assignment with a due date and instructions, pretty much as #1 above, then collecting the work on the VLE. In Moodle this is done via a simple Online Text assignment, an Upload a Single File assignment, or an Advanced Uploading of Files assignment. The details of these are best explored by reading the documentation pages, or simply by setting up an assignment of the kind you're interested in, but there are a number of creative practices which can be done with these tools. The Online Text assignment is fairly simple, but as it uses the HTML editor for students to enter their work in, there are lots of creative possibilities. If you're using Google Docs with your students, you could set an assignment (create a spreadsheet / presentation / etc.) as an online text Assignment and then students would respond with a link to their presentation and then a paragraph of explanatory text. You could set an audio homework by using something like GabCast - students simply link to the contribution that they made via their phone or (for the geeks among them) embed it in the HTML editor (if your Moodle site is set up to allow embedding to be done by students). There are as many ways to set up creative pieces of homework as there are creative tools on the web - however it's a good idea to settle on a few and stick to them, rather than aiming for something novel every week. That way students have more chance of focusing on what you want them to study, rather than the tool you want them to learn.
Dog ate my homework by Inju - used under Creative Commons licenceOne really important part of any of these uses is setting grading scales consistently across you VLE. The best way to do this is to decide on a few "common" grading scales, then make sure your Moodle admin makes them available across the site. It's a good idea (in a secondary school) to agree a series of "applicable to everyone" scales, such as GCSE Grades, A-Level Grades, Levels and possibly ones like Effort & Attainment. These are then available to everyone on a consistent basis.
One word of advice would be - don't try everything at once. Think about what you would do with "normal" paper-based homework, work out which tool(s) would work and then have a go - starting simply and developing your use and you (and your students) learn how things work.
What other ways might you use a VLE for homework? Has anything worked better than you thought, while other things died a slow and painful death?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Create a free e-newsletter service for parents using a Moodle forum & Feedburner

Communicating with parents


Email Subscribe by derickkwa - used under Creative Commons license.

In Buckinghamshire we don't currently encourage schools to give out parent usernames for their VLEs, so having a "log in to the parents area" section is difficult, other than doing it anonymously via a Moodle course with an enrolment key set and Guest access allowed for those who have the key. The enrolment key can be communicated to parents via the usual channels (letters home, open evenings, etc.) and this provides a simple way of opening up part of the school's Moodle in the same way sections of the school might be opened up during a normal open evening.

This can work well, but doesn't really send the information to th e parents - it requires them to "log in" by entering the enrolment key every time they want to access the information. RSS Feeds are another method of "syndicating" content from Moodle - especially forums - however those parents savvy enough to subscribe to an RSS feed would probably be comfortable with logging in to an area dedicated for parents, so those might count as methods which replicate one another.
BlackBerry Bold by edans - used under Creative Commons license.

A final option is email - many (though - crucially - not all) parents have email addresses, and might be keen to receive messages on their phone, computer (at home or work) or other device which might access email. However, as previously mentioned, parents don't have accounts on the VLE, so won't be emailed automatically from forums, as staff or students might be.
However, there is a way around this problem - and, up front, credit must go to Paul Adams, working at a couple of our schools, for inspiring this.

What is outlined below provides a simple (and free!) alternative to something like ParentMail, which sells itself as "help[ing] you meet Government targets on parental communications" - well, I guess what's outlined below does a similar thing, except it doesn't cost anything (cough)...

Setting up the forum

The first thing to do is ensure that RSS is switched on for foru ms on your Moodle site - this is done through your site admin (if that's not you). On a Moodle 1.9 site, go to http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=rss and make sure that RSS feeds are enabled. Then visit the Forum module admin pages at http://yourmoodlesite/admin/settings.php?section=modsettingforum and make sure that RSS feeds are set to "yes". Once those things are set, add a new forum for whatever is wanted to inform parents about. It might be the monthly newsletter, it might be emergency school closures - it's up to you. Make sure that in the settings for this forum that RSS is enabled - with as many / few items as you want. Complete the other settings as you need to - then view the f orum. If RSS has been enabled then you'll see the orange RSS icon - click on this to see the feed. This will initially be blank - especially if you've only just created the forum. Copy the feed URL (it should end in rss.xml).

Enter Feedburner...

Once the feed has been created, what we're going to do is put it into Feedburner - a free service (acquired by Google in recent times) which allows all sorts of subscription options to RSS feeds - including (crucially) via email. Once you've set up a feed and added it to Feedburner (you'll need a Google account which the feed is associated with - bear that in mind if you leave the school) you'll see the Publicize tab, under which is the Email subscriptions item. This allows you to copy the HTML form code to embed the subscription form on your VLE, or you could simply copy the link further down the page. Parents & carers will be able to subscrib e to the service once they've given a valid email address, and responded to the confirmation email.
What this means is that every time an entry is made in the forum then it will also be emailed to those who have subscribed - you can even customise the output to include your school's logo, format it nicely, even change the wording of the confirmation email which parents will have to respond to - much of which is explained in the Feedburner email FAQ. It's definitely worth testing this out yourself by subscribing to your own feed and posting a couple of items in the forum, just to see how they arrive in your email box. Feedburner works on a daily digest model - so multiple postings in one day will arrive as a single daily email. It also provides statistics of who's clicked on what, which country they were in (useful if you did an newsletter fo ex-pupils), how often it was read - in fact probably Too Much Information, but someone will be pleased all of that data is there...

A few pointers

This is quite straightforward to set up and provides the functionality of paid-for services which are sold to schools to enable them to "engage with parents". However, there are a few points to bear in mind if you're doing this:
  • bear in mind that, if you publicise your subscription area in a public place, anyone will be able to subscribe to (and hence read) whatever is sent out in this forum. The Subscription Management tool at Feedburner allows you to see who's subscribed, who's confirmed (and remove anyone if you feel the need to);
  • as this forum will be read publicly, it's important to know who can post to it. You should use the Roles options for the forum to ensure that only staff who you have asked to can post to the forum. Critically, if the forums are held in a course, make the course non-enrollable (in its Settings) so that students can't reply to messages in the forums - which might be sent to all parents!
  • bear in mind that any attachments (PDF etc.) made in the Moodle forum might be referenced as being "inside the course" and might require parents to access the course - so if that's not something you want then you could publish any newsletters as something more "sexy" at Issuu or Yudu and simply place a link to the newsletter on that site in your forum post.
  • you can have as many Feedburner subscriptions from as many forums as you want to - parents would need to "opt-in" to each forum, as you'd hope. They could also unsubscribe when they wanted to.
  • if you wanted to make this slightly more private, you could hide the links or subscription forms in a Moodle course which had Guest access enabled but was (slightly) protected by an enrolment key (which you'd make available to parents, but not outside the school). Once parents had got into the course, they could then access the links to subscribe, then they'd never need to visit the course again.
  • ...and of course, you can do this with any VLE or other tool which provides an RSS feed - I use it for this blog - so it's definitely a transferable, adaptable tool. The most difficult thing to do is posting something interesting, timely and relevant in the forums!
Do you used Feedburner or similar tools to communicate with parents? Have you had any problems or successes? How does it compare with paid-for newsletter services?

Using Web 2.0 within Moodle

Yesterday I went to a meeting at Great Marlow School in, er, Marlow concerning the Wycombe A-Level consortium. While this was a fruitful meeting, what was equally interesting was the chance to meet afterwards with one of the Assistant Headteachers of the school and Haydn Jones, who's been leading on the development of the school's Moodle as both VLE and the main school web site.
The decision to use Moodle for both the school's VLE and its "public facing" web site isn't a small one, since the average school leader wants a pretty painting aesthetic features which many people are convinced that Moodle can't provide. This isn't strictly true, since there's a plethora of really striking Moodle themes around can be applied and adapted - many are free, or a school can fork out around £20 for any number of lovely themes, or even design their own. We have plenty of schools around the county that have "rolled" their own theme, or adapted an existing one, plus there's my relatively simple flexible Moodle theme (if that meets a need).
What's been going on at GMS is a little more nuanced - as well as the look and feel of the site, there's been much thought about the process by which the average web site is updated, and by whom, and how that process might be simplified. As you'd guess, there are plenty of simple tools around to make it easier for appropriate staff to update elements of the site, but integrating them into Moodle might take some work.
Suffice to say that from my brief look at the work that's gone on at the school, it's clear that there's a lot of thought that's gone into it - and the practical yet innovative application of the tools is pretty good too. I've asked Haydn if he'd be good enough to write a post or two here to go into it in detail, since I think it would be of interest to many people. Here's a brief rundown of what tools (other than the ones built-in to Moodle) have been used:

Now, because some of these services are (by and large) blocked by the County's default filtering settings, the school has taken control of local filtering [PDF] to allow certain parts of some of the services through, which has made the whole process a lot easier.
I won't go into any more detail now - I'll leave that for Haydn when he writes his post(s) (no pressure there...). The site is due to relaunch in the near future, so hopefully you'll be able to read about how it was made around that time. In the meantime you could always request to follow Haydn on twitter if you're interested about what he's up to...