Clarify – Write better instructions

If you are an IT teacher, coordinator, director or just the techy teacher in your school, you’ve had to make instructions for people. Any technical instructions worth their salt have nice screenshots, are organized and are clearly written. Believe me, I’ve seen some terrible instructions where pictures are improperly resized, the pictures are not annotated and difficult to see how it fits in with the steps and/or there are no pictures at all.

At any rate, if you’ve ever had to make such instructions, you know how time consuming it is because you usually are using some word processing program (Word, Pages, Google Docs) then a screen shot program (Skitch, Voila, etc) then you are copying and pasting those images into the document. Argghhhh – it even takes a long time to write about it!

There is a solution. It is a program called Clarify. It works on Mac and Windows (no iOS, Android or Linux) and it lets you take screen shots, annotate (you know draw circles, arrows, etc) and then write instructions for that screenshot. Then once your instructions are done, you can then publish them on the web through their server, WordPress, Dropbox or Evernote. You can also export it as HTML, PDF or Word document. Pretty snazzy no?

You can find this program through their website or through the Mac App store but I recommend buying it through their website. You will get the updates faster and all of the money goes to the developer which is a good thing people.

FYI – I am using Skitch to take the screenshots. While Clarify can do it – I find it much easier to get certain aspects of Clarify in action using a third party software.

Getting Started
I’ll assume you’ve downloaded the program, opened it up and are ready to make your first set of instructions. Great! Before you take your first screenshot go ahead and give your project a title and description.

Now let’s take that first screen shot. When you do this, it automatically creates a step. To do this, you have lots of options. One, you can use the keyboard shortcut (for me on my Mac it is ⌘ + Shift + 2 if you have a Windows machine it will be different), you can click on the camera button in Clarify itself.

You can also use the menu bar option (located at the top of your screen).

These all do the same thing. When you take the screenshot you have a number of options. You can resize (right click the image), you can annotate (check out the toolbar below).

You have these options to annotate an image
* Draw boxes, circles and arrows
* Highlight text
* Write text on an image
* Add numbered circles (good for sequential steps on one image)
* Blurring an image
* You can also resize or crop an image

That’s a nice feature set if I dare say so myself. Now once you have your image, go ahead and write your instructions. Rinse and repeat until you have all your steps

Keep this in mind!
A few notes to consider. You can only add one image per step, but the good people at Clarify have thought about that. Go ahead and make a new step but instead of giving it a title, leave that blank. What Clarify will do is keep those steps formatted very closely to one another making it appear they are all part of the same step. Nifty huh?

Also, spell check is not on by default. After you’ve typed your instructions, run spell check through the program (you can find it under the Edit menu option). I am supremely confident this is done on purpose as they want you to re-read your instructions before publishing or sending them out to people. Come on – that’s a good idea.

One of the best features of Clarify is the fact that it can be published straight online. You can publish it to Evernote, Dropbox, a WordPress blog but the best option in my opinion is being able to publish it straight to Clarify’s servers. The end product looks great, they give you a link, it gives you basic stats of how many times it was viewed. Check out one of mine by following this link.

You might be saying to yourself Damn-this is great! but wait there is more. If you want to make changes to your document, just open it back up, make the changes and re-publish it. It will take down the old content, replace it with the updated content and keep the URL (or web address) the same, so people who have booked marked it will get the latest and greatest guide you’ve made!

The cherry on top!
Yep, more good news coming your way dear reader. Clarify has fantastic support. Let me tell you of my experience. I upgraded Clarify a few months ago but it kept crashing on my computer. I contacted Clarify about it and they got back to me within 12 hours (that’s fast people). I sent them my crash report and they have said that the problem was with my computer and not their program (which it was) and leave it at that, but NO! Off and on for about a month we worked the problem together and finally pinpointed exactly what it was. I had an obscure program running in the background which was conflicting with Clairfy. I removed the program and have never had an issue since. AWESOME!

Wrapping it up
I’ve said wuite a bit about Clarify and now here is my personal testimony. I’ve made over 100 guides using this product. I wouldn’t think of using anything else really. It is easy, effective, it allows you to easily disseminate your info to your audience. I am sure that there are others of you out there who would benefit from it. Don’t balk at the $30 price – it has easily saved me more than that in time over the past three years.


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The Punctuation Guide

Punctuation – love it or hate it, you need to know it if you want to be taken seriously. I’m not the best but upon finding this (via LifeHacker) I feel like I can get quite a bit better.

It is an interactive site that gives you explanations and examples of the punctuation so you can better decide whether to use it or not. For example the dreaded semicolon.

There are no ads, it is appropriate for grade 5 and up I would guess and it is dead simple to navigate. Even, if you don’t know the name of the punctuation, they have images that you can click on from the homepage. Very clever.

Check it out for yourself.
The Punction Guide

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The Devil’s Advocate Part 2: Tech Integration Should Stop

Please note: These “Devil’s Advocate” posts are not my views or daily practice. However, as an exercise I think we all need to slow down and ask ourselves if we are doing the correct things in the correct ways. In order to do this, we need to take another position and argue against our practice. I am good at fighting with myself, so I hope my intent helps anyone in a technology or educational leadership role do the same.


The fact is that we need to start building IT spaces again. Maybe not labs, but spaces. The concept of sending someone into a classroom to “support” thirty students while they are suppose to be studying is flawed. The idea that some 20-30 minute activity during English class some how expand their minds and technology skills is horribly flawed. There was a time when students went to space that we designed for them to focus and do some real work. A space designed for projects that took time and planning. A space that may have had rules and controls to force them to work within a framework, as most people do in their day-to-day life.

Now, we have only the chaos of tables and laptops with small amounts of technology being infused to achieve Wikipedia searching and interactions with low-powered online or iPad apps. A movie a student can make on an iPad in English class, is not even in the same pedagogical realm as a movie that can produced on a specialised workstation.



The ability to build and tell a story with video should take a student weeks, not 45-60 minutes. Real stories are complex and require serious time commitments. Having students do everything on a Twitter-like scale is not going to produce any deep learning.

Robotics and engineering work best in spaces that are purpose built for them. Additional materials make these activities powerful. Materials require storage and management, and cannot be floating around on a campus. Projects within the discipline of engineering again take weeks to complete. They require students to put order to chaos, and they cannot be completed with an iPad or any equipment that is fragile. Computers controlling equipment need to be configured properly and should be standardised. Calibration is essential, and if students use their laptops, then every day they will need to re-adjust or re-calibrate. Instead of walking into a space and working, they will waste 10-20 minutes just getting setup.

Writing is another area where technology integration and push-in programs of all kinds have failed. Students do not need to type in school. Yes, they need to submit digital copies of work and it must be typed. However, since 90% of their third party external exams (IB, AP, SAT, etc.) are all hand written, they should be constantly writing by hand. Until the third party external exams change, schools need to prepare students to manage the given format.

Software licensing is still designed for school own spaces. Companies prefer to be able to audit specific devices in specific locations. Once a student takes a laptop home, regardless of the laptop program model, they have the opportunity to pirate software. Why take the risk? Do they really need to be using Photoshop at home? Probably not. They need to be focusing on the endless projects requiring typing and primitive online research. This is something students can accomplish with fairly low-end equipment. If they need to do a special project with media, they can work late at school.

It is time to just acknowledge that the model everyone believes in is flawed. Teachers and administrators secretly want to voice this as their opinion. Students are wasting time on small projects that have little to no scale. Students are not truly given the time and resources to master anything complex. Let’s change the model. Let’s look to the past. Let’s start making spaces and stop trying to turn every room into technology hub.

Tony DePrato

Posted in Educational Technology, Instructional Technology, Opinion, Tech Integration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Five terrible movies you can’t show your students

I love movies – for a good part of my high school and university career I worked in a movie theater to pay for school, food and … after school activities :)

Since the winter break is nearly here for most of us, some teachers will “reward” thier students with a little popular culture in class. Here are some movies that you should avoid-no matter how safe or fun they look. I’ve got a wide variety on here from elementary school on up through university. Just stay away from them all. If not, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Number 5 – New Year’s Eve

I tried to watch this mess. I really did but couldn’t get through it. I thought it maybe could be somewhat appropriate with its PG–13 rating, you know for teens, but … wow! It is pretty terrible. If you are striving to become an unpopular teacher than by all means turn this one on, sit back and let the disappointment float your way.

Number 4 – Jack Frost

I love me some Michael Keaton but there was a period when he was churning out lousy movies and this one nearly takes the cake. Basically Michael Keaton is a dad, has an accident, his son plays a magic harmonica and Michael Keaton comes back to life as a snowman. Oh yeah, the movie is far worse than the description. His son isn’t likable the snowman effects look terrible (even for that time) and the movie has enough sweetness to drop anyone into a diabetic coma. Steer clear my fellow educators.

Number 3 – 2010

This isn’t really a holiday movie but it was released during the holidays – so I’m stretching a bit.

The follow up to the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is this well cast movie penned by Arthur C. Clarke. Too bad, the movie is vastly different the source material. Instead of being a fantastic adventure of exploring something unexplainable it devolves into a 1980’s cold war propaganda where the Americans save the day. Just thinking about this movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s well cast but man it sucks hard. Read the book to your students – it will be a far better experience.

Number 2 – Thumbelina

I was working at a movie theater and had to watch it – at least I got paid for it. Lousy animation, lousy voice acting just lousy all around. If you’re looking for a good Don Bluth movie – there are plenty out there that will suffice. Stay away from this one though – your students will thank you.

Number 1 – Jack and Jill

Happy to say I never saw this one but based on the reviews and his latest Grown Ups movies I can only guess that this thing deserves to be left in the 1$ DVD bin. I doubt your students will find it amusing and I’m sure neither will you.

Well, that’s it – what other movies should your colleagues not play for their students. Leave your choices in the comments.

Posted in Opinion, Patrick Cauley | Tagged | Leave a comment

Just let go


I was talking with our outstanding integration specialist at my school and we were trying to figure out how to get teachers to integrate more. When initially proposed to the idea, teachers seem very enthusiastic and open to ideas. It is an exciting time – then comes the action, the execution and instead of something special, engaging and meaningful we are handed excuses.

Here is what we hear:
* I’m too busy right now – my schedule is crazy and I just don’t have time to figure something new out.
* I don’t know – it sounds a little too complicated. What if the students have a question that I can’t answer?
* Let me talk with the rest of my team – if they are for it – let’s do it! (Usually there is at least one objector which puts it on hold or kills it)
* I already have a unit that works pretty well – don’t fix what’s not broken right?

There are others but let’s not beat a dead horse. While these are all decent excuses, being a classroom teacher myself I know that they just usually don’t hold up under real scrutiny (though the first one can at times). I’m not going to pull these excuses apart because that isn’t going to address the issue. Instead, I’m going to talk about why I think teachers are reluctant and how to get them on board without making the teachers feel small, inadequate or dumb.

Why not?

First, the teachers I work with are intelligent, experienced and well trained. They are passionate about what they do and almost always think about their students first, so why wouldn’t they want to explore new and possibly better ways to engage their students?

Well, it is a different way of thinking. Our students and teachers are use to creating and following lesson plans. I’ll plan the unit like this with lessons where students will do these tasks. I should expect work to look like this of this quality. Throughout the unit I will explain what is expected to be learned and how to demonstrate that learning. An A+ will look like this and an F will most likely look like this.

It is all directed by the teacher. It is predictable and it works and this isn’t a bad thing people, but it doesn’t allow for a a wide variety of creativity or expression. For example having students do a PowerPoint. You know what you’re going to get. All PowerPoints behave the same and it is well…boring and once students know what it should look like many of the presentation created will look the same like a cookie cutter.

Technology can give students choices of how to demonstrate their learning. Students get to determine what information to present, how to present it to make an impact on their audience and how to publish this on the web for others (not just their class or teacher to view). Some students could make a blog while another will make a video while others still will create a website and some will not use technology at all. This choice allows the students to better evaluate their tools and how to deliver their message more effectively.

This scares a lot of teachers. Teachers may be delivering and guiding students to the knowledge, but now technology enters into the picture and students have to synthesize and internalize that knowledge a little more in order to better mold it to a specific digital container. With a wide variety of choices out there, students need to make some critical decisions. This means that teachers can no longer direct everything. They are no longer in complete control of what is happening in the class. They are more guides now, they need to let the f#*$ go. Just let go and take a step back, give lots of choices and see what happens. It’s a little scary, like letting a child drive a bus.

This is not easy – it wasn’t for me and I doubt it will be for others.

It means taking a step back from directing the class and now you are observing, guiding, questioning students and asking them to defend their choices making sure essential questions and the content is paramount. Some students may make a video, others may make an interactive story while others may just use a PowerPoint or use no technology at all. Focusing more on the content and less on the container makes for a more meaningful experience.

That’s great but not for me

Some teachers don’t like this. One reason is the technical aspect What if the students have a technical question and I can’t answer it? This is a valid concern and here is what I tell people. Well, then you can’t answer it. Most programs are meant to be used by just about everybody. Which means, if you don’t know how to put a picture in a Prezi, you can probably find out how through their support page, a short YouTube video or just by Googling it. These three choices usually can solve the problem, if it doesn’t – let go and see how the student solves the problem? Maybe they find a work around, maybe they find a different way to present the material or maybe they abandon that tool altogether.

It is the last choice that scares teachers and students. As educators – there is this misconception that we have all the answers – but NO! We clearly don’t nor are we meant to. Education is a journey more than just a quest. We aren’t just spoon feeding information but helping students to find meaningful information not just something that students can recall for a test. What if they need to start all over again. It happens, in schools, in business, in life. At that point is when I usually step in to assist, but only a little, just enough to show them that it is possible to reach completion.

Another reason is that teachers may feel students will focus more on the technology and not the content. I’ve seen this too – hell I’ve even made this mistake in my teaching. I taught a podcast unit and focused on the software of the podcast instead of the content itself. What I ended up with was thirteen painfully boring, uninformative and uninspired podcasts. Students were merely checking boxes and didn’t care that much about their end product and were more interested in the process. Not what I was hoping for.

How did I fix it? I didn’t, I had to reflect and try it again the next year. It was a failure but from it, I learned a lot and even talked about it with my students and discussed how they could have been better.

The next year I let go and focused more on the product and very little of the technical process. That’s not to say I didn’t have issues, I stepped in when I felt it was necessary and questioned their creative process, topics and how they planned and helped with specific technical questions. In the end, I ended up with fourteen podcasts of varying quality. Some very good, some not good and most with nice qualities that had their moments but all had topics that they cared about and wanted to share it with a larger audience which made it a better product that they, and myself, were interested in. There was passion behind most of them and they varied with their creativity. Yes-that’s what I’m talking about!

Yet another reason is the fear of failure. When I heard that first batch of podcasts, I didn’t even try to grade them. They were just bad. I was depressed – I failed. I wasn’t sure what the students got out of the unit. They clearly knew the process but completely faltered at expressing ideas to their audience. Only part of the unit got through and I would argue the wrong part.

So what do I do? To go back and do it again, would mean sacrificing another unit and be out of sync with my colleague. How would the admin fell about that? How would parents feel about that? I can’t necessarily throw the curriculum in the garbage can I?

Lots of questions and as you read earlier I had a few days of listening and discussing with my class that yielded very good results. I felt OK moving on after that but I was pretty disappointed and scared on how to “fix it” initially. This leads to a larger question of curriculum mapping and if it is valuable tool or a limiting one. I am not prepared for that question folks-maybe at a later day.

How to get teachers on board?

As you’ve read there are a lot of issues here that are hidden behind those one or two sentence excuses, so how do we get over those issues? I talked about letting go but how? Let’s focus on that

Know your goals

One thing that this important (whether you are using technology or not) is to know what you want to accomplish. That will help you and your students stay on task. If they come to you with some crazy IT heavy presentation, point them back to the original goal and ask how this project achieves that. If they can’t defend it – they need to go back to planning.

Integration specialists? Use ’em!

If you have an integration specialists (this role can have different names) use them! In my experience, the people I’ve met in this role (I’ve been one informally before) have been awesome! They can make the guides, help team-teach, or give suggestions of different tools to use and how to bring it into the classroom meaningfully.

These people also have an excellent handle of assessing failures and areas of improvement. You don’t need to do everything yourself.

Don’t go it alone

If you work on a team get them to help out. Have an integration specialist? Use those people. One thing I see, is that some teachers try to integrate and it falls short of their expectations and they then abandoned it altogether. No real discussion, no other thought and minimal reflection. If you are working on this with another colleague then these rarely happens. You have someone to share the joy of success or the dread of failure and then someone you feel comfortable with talking about why the unit ended up the way it did.


Changing the tools you use, the way you approach lessons and having a more collaborative approach to tech integration takes time. Don’t force it, more often than not, people who force tech into their lessons aren’t terribly interested in thoughtfully planning it out or thoughtfully reflecting on the outcomes. Take your time.

When I introduced my school to Edmodo through a workshop, I believe no one from that workshop ever used it. I know this because I followed up with each of them. Was it discouraging? Sure, a little bit but you know it was the end of the year. Then I did the same workshop the following fall. This time 3 our 25 people started using it. Then it became a snowball. More and more people jumped on because they heard and saw how effective it was in other people’s classrooms – that’s what I’m talking about.

It took time though for people to come around to the idea of using a learning management system.

Also my podcasting unit took three years to develop into something that was pretty special. It took time, reflection, and collaboration.

Resilience and being risky

This is a biggie. You have to be prepared to possibly fail. You also have to prepare to bounce back from failures which inevitably happen. Both of these ideas scare the shit out of people – ALL PEOPLE. Few people I have ever encountered like to fail and the stigma associated with a “failure” is mighty powerful, so putting oneself in a position where they could fail is not high on many people’s to-do list, but if you want to be a great teacher then you have to be prepared to see how far out you can go.

Whew – that is one damn long post. If you’re still reading and we ever cross paths remind me that you read to the end of this post and I’ll buy you a refreshing beverage of your choice and we can talk more about education technology – or whatever you want. You earned friendo.

Posted in Helpful Tips, Patrick Cauley | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Devil’s Advocate Part 1: The Classroom and Entitlement

pluto     I find it to be part of the human condition that we are always guilty of accepting things as truth that are often unproven theories that appear to work well. I also find it common that process that work are often assumed to always work with little or no evaluation as they age. This is a three part series of posts where I will criticize common practices and structures that exist in modern educational technology programs.

The Classroom and Entitlement

Why do we give teachers laptops? In 2009 I conducted a survey among the staff at my school. A school of 2300 international students, and a reputable IB Program.

In this survey, 65% of teachers said they would prefer a classroom system integrated into their classroom. 85% of those surveyed had a laptop they owned and preferred to their school issued laptop. After a cost analysis of laptops vs a thin-client system connect to a custom control panel , I made a proposal to the administrative team.

I had a plan to phase out laptop entitlement over three years and rebuild all the classrooms. The project did not move forward. I was told, and convincingly, that all contracts guarantee a laptop, and without that promise it was difficult to recruit staff. There was no promise of a good laptop, or a new one, just a laptop.

The majority of teachers I have encountered use their school laptops mainly for content presentation or to play media. From a purely technical standpoint, a laptop used for this purpose is inferior to a system optimized for presentation and media. Many schools even purchase docking stations to make it easier for teachers to move their equipment from room-to-room. Teachers often struggle to connect laptops quickly and get their classes started.

Also consider that the more frequently people touch and move cables, equipment, etc. the faster equipment degrades.

The fact is a classroom would be better off with a server based content delivery system, excellent displays, digital sound, network based maintenance interfaces, and follow-me profiles that allow teachers to be in any location and have an identical experience. Yet schools are married to a model that creates chaos, delays lessons, and is riddle with frequent damage.

I own my own laptop. I have found most people who are given an entitled laptop also have one at home. Many teachers leave their laptops at school, and connected, so they do not have to worry about resetting it. They use their personal laptop for any off-campus work.

Laptop entitlement also seems to work only one-way. The school is entitle to supply equipment, but the teacher is not required to use the equipment to develop innovative or engaging lessons. They are not required to do more than presentations, play media, and use a limited number of online resources. All of these activities can be accomplished with other technologies that are easier to use and faster to deploy.

It seems laptops should be earned. They should be given to people who have a plan that requires something more than a well integrated presentation system.

Opportunities for teacher collaboration are often used to justify entitlement. Collaboration can be accomplished using the vast amount of personal technology that teachers bring to school everyday. Phones and other devices are used by teachers everyday for non-educational purposes, yet, these smaller devices are ideal for note taking, planning, and other collaborative activities. Statistically, if most teachers have a laptop at home, then they can still work at home. In fact, they can be enabled to use their personal technology at work for any work that happens outside of the classroom.

When teachers consider signing a second or third contract, maybe that is when a stipend or technology fee should be offered to incentivise those who are contributing to the stability of the community. This incentive process would further increase the number of teachers buying and bringing their own laptops to school, if they need them. In addition, teachers may decide a laptop is not needed, and they may buy something more specific to their department. This would probably lead to many teachers experimenting on their own with technology and then making a plan with the school to incorporate new technology and new educational initiatives.

Overall, this approach seems more natural. There is a natural evolution of technology based-on need. Every teacher begins with equal resources, some will choose a different way of working, while others will maintain a traditional focus.

Classrooms do not seem to be going away. Schools seem to keep building classrooms as they did in the past. It stands to reason that classrooms need to evolve. Resources need to support the real work that is happening and not the work that could happen. Teachers need to think about what they need and request it based-on a plan. Teachers also should be given a chance to acquire what they need or what they are interested in learning. Schools differentiate for students, maybe it is time they do the same for teachers.

Tony DePrato

Posted in Educational Technology, Instructional Technology | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Homework in a 1:1 Classroom – It is Time to Re-Define The Terms

curvilinear relationship

Curvilinear Relationship

This is a graph that means something very odd. This is a graph many research get when they study homework. What this graph means is this: Doing some homework is better than doing none at all, but doing larger amounts of homework is actually less beneficial than doing smaller amounts of homework.

Does this mean anything about homework? No. Not really. What it means is the way we approach and study the topic, apparently since the late 1880s, is flawed. I suggest starting over, and in 2014 starting over can be easier than in 1914 because many educators are lucky enough to work in 1:1 programs. These programs allow schools to redefine the keyword in the compound word homework- WORK.

I have been asked to be on a panel about 1:1 programs and homework and to make a presentation on the topic. As someone who always assumes what I know is flawed or outdated, I re-read some homework research. I re-read some Roger Schank who I feel is usually ignored by K-12 educators but is in fact one of the worlds best experts on human learning. I looked passed the politics and the concept that in many cases homework is babysitting and a tool for punishment.

In conclusion, I have decided that when working with children above year 7 in a 1:1 school, schools need to stop saying this is your homework, and start saying this is THE WORK.


When students begin a course of study they need to know what is expected. The first 1-2 weeks should be spent explaining and exemplifying where they need to be by the end of the course and why they need to be there. This should be broken down into the estimated number of hours the average student needs, and the resources and skills required, to complete the course.

In addition students should understand the payoff. Is the course designed to simply level them up? It is designed to prepare them from some third party assessment? Is the outcome actually meaningless for academic purposes, but meaningful for other reasons?

This is the work. This is what they need to understand.

Hours of time to complete something are finite. Students can understand that. If they are not reaching a certain goal in a certain amount of time then they will know they need help or they need to study more. Adolescent children lose track of time all the time. They also lose track of value, money, and many personal possessions. Giving them some metric they already understand to help maintain their space in a course, is a good idea.

This only works though if the teachers understand the work. I firmly believe many teachers assign work that they feel should take an hour, but actually takes much longer. I do not believe most teachers simulate the work to make sure their plans and expectations are aligned with reality.

The Work in a 1:1 Environment

If the course and course work has been defined, then leveraging the 1:1 environment is the next step. Weather flipping-out a classroom with media or simply organising all the materials for digital distribution, the next step is to give the students everything. A friend of mine use to call this giving them “the brick”.

Every student should have everything the teacher has. This includes but is not limited to old exams, samples of work, teaching notes, links and resources, search terms for databases, etc. Anything that is not illegal to share with students, should be shared, in mass, and immediately.

This immediately makes the 1:1 program a real resource. It allows students to have immediate access to information and new opportunities for learning. This process eliminates the ubiquitous and time wasting “Googling” students get lost in, which I find to be a core waste of classroom time.

The teacher must be able to initially help students organise material, or come-up with strategies for organising the material. The teacher also needs to review the skills needed to use the material. However, shouldn’t they be doing that anyway? Instead of doing it in small pieces, the tools and skills are given up-front.

Day-to-day there are topics that have to be covered. At the end of a 2-3 day cycle teachers should be aware of how much class-time has been used effectively. If class-time has not been sufficient, then students immediately can be prompted to do the work on their own until they are at, or close to, where they should be in the course.

The Work Outside the Classroom

If students are aware they are behind, especially as a class, then teachers can easily assign tasks to them to keep them moving on their own time. Because students have the materials and resources at the ready, teachers merely need to have a strong grasp of the time needed to cover material and master skills.

Asking students to “read for the next class”, is not going to influence them to actually read and pay attention. However, looking at 30 students, dividing them into groups of 5, and dividing the reading by 5, means five groups get to make 5 discussions and lead the learning. The assessment for something like this would be in realtime, done in the classroom, and can easily be explained to the students.

This technique can literally be used all the time with reading. Students can team up, open their materials, and start working. They can work in groups at school, online from home, or asynchronously in numerous ways. They all have equal access to resources and communication. Communication strategies for this type of work can be suggested or modes of communications can be strict and monitored. The options are there, and the problems are easy to resolve.

When students need to do key assessments such as mid-terms, final exams, mock exams, etc., reviewing in class will often lead them to believe that the content in class, is the content on the exam. Working outside the classroom and using the material they have and tools for group work, they should be able to collectively create exam-like questions, and answer them. The teacher can provide oversight and correction during class-time.

I use these two examples as they seem to be the most common types of activity that teachers and students engage in- reading, discussing, preparing, and assessing.

Everyone always likes to throw this around as a great educational theory~ Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.

If I had a dollar everytime I heard someone say “UBD”, I would have a bunch of dollars. Like many things though, schools and teachers tend forget this little gem by Wiggins and McTighe~ THE SIX FACETS OF UNDERSTANDING . In summary those are:

  • Explanation
  • Interpretation
  • Application
  • Perspective
  • Empathy
  • Self-Knowledge

Just to be clear, this means when students are working and learning, they need to be able to explain, interpret, and apply information and skills. They also need to be able to see around the concepts, find errors, explain the errors, and understand other points of view.

Applying a traditional model of studying for tests by doing homework, does not meet this standard. Students should spiral through explanation to self-knowledge often. They may never achieve self-knowledge, but they need to always be heading there.

Following the path of homework to test, is a circle, and those who master the circle, can master the appearance of achievement. UBD does not seem to be possible without including the six facets. Yet, they are often ignored.

In a 1:1 program the students should be able to use their own time for the initial exposure to new material, skills, and ideas. They should be able to use the class-time to engage with the teacher. The teacher can use the class-time to push the students further into the spiral of learning, and use the out of school time to move from regurgitation of content to actually creating something or proposing something new.

Walking The Path vs Jargon

A few days ago a friend of mine when to a job interview. When it was done he said, “I am not sure what they are doing at the school, but they use alot of jargon and buzzwords.”

Much of what has been written could be construed as a rant, a theory, or an untested philosophy. I would like to admit to teaching and running my classes in the manner listed in this post since 2005.

I worked like this, because it is how I would want to work. I always resented not being able to know what I was going to do next in school. Sometimes, playing the numbers, I knew I could slack off during a semester if I only knew what was coming and when. In high school I was very busy with more than school. In university, even more so. I wanted to do things, and sometimes I just could not do my homework. Sometimes, somethings, were bigger than homework.

Even with year 5 students in robotics I would post videos showing what the next robot could look like, and more importantly, what it could do. I would post pictures of robots and the homework was for the year 5 students to go home and find problems with those designs.

Even with adults doing professional development I use these techniques. I send people required to do PD after work information and tasks. If they get those finished, they can go home. If they have more questions, I speak to them during the event while others are doing things for the first time. Every teacher has a laptop so I expect them to be able to use it for learning not just showing presentations.

Do The Research

I encourage everyone to spend a few hours, yes hours this is not Twitter, to read the following resources. This is important, because after doing the research it will be difficult NOT to agree with me. :)

Flipped-Classroom by Cara Marlowe 



Does Homework Matter by Alfie Kohn


Classrooms are a Terrible Idea and Trial-and-Error by Roger Schank




Tony DePrato

Posted in Educational Technology, Instructional Technology, Opinion, Tech Integration | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Gestalt Thinking and The IT Department

gestaltLast week I spoke to someone who was doing some consulting work at an international school. They were trying to assess what was causing the various problems. It was not money or resources. It seemed the administration was trying to make things work. So as we began to speak she asked me a few questions about the organizational structure. I gave her a very clear answer and opinion. She told me what I told her was contrary to every other person she has interviewed about these problems.

I told her I firmly believed that if a school can support and afford it, the technology structure should be formally defined as Educational Technology (EdTech) and Business & Operations (BusOps).

I told her that certain plans and projects should fall into each of those divisions and be managed according to strategic plans and initiatives. In other words, the IT Department needs a clear focus, people need to know their main roles, and the regular school administration should be involved in tracking and accounting for the IT projects.

If a school cannot afford the staffing to support a real separation, then the policies in procedures governing the IT department should clearly define priorities, standards, and
any and all division of work.

In my current role I have a 70 page policy manual that is growing. It will soon be, after much debate, split into an EdTech/BusOps model. Various types of projects will start to be filtered directly to people who can do those projects autonomously, because those projects were planned and budgeted.

Does this mean as a department we will never meet and plan? No. It means after we meet and plan with the school administration, we each should be able to do our work with some oversight. I ask for oversight all the time from the network engineer, and he asks for my oversight on projects that impact the classroom. As a team we make timelines, we debate over priorities and resources, and we constantly allocate jobs to each other.

However, when the year is coming to a close, and it is time to reflect, we have projects that each group of people has completed or failed to complete. We can report on issues related to EdTech separately from issues related to BusOps.

But here is the problem, and I know this all too well because I use to be “the problem”. I was the IT coordinator and integration specialist who would blame the IT engineers and support staff for everything. I accused them of not being diligent and focused. I believed they did not care. I saw them as the weak link, and eventually I took it upon myself to manage them from that perspective.

It worked. Things seemed to be better and more organized, but there was a huge downside. Firstly, I was still completely dependent on them for supporting the school, I could not actually do all the work alone. Secondly, they were so afraid to make mistakes that I could not expand the technology past a certain point.

So I had to change. The first thing I had to do was listen. I found that these people had not always been the way they were. They had been marginalised, blamed for issues they predicted but were unable to resolve due to funding, and no one had given them any sort of additional training or time to pursue learning.

Of all these things, the last one I consider nearly insane. I do at least 6 weeks worth of training a year just to stay even, if I want to really grow, I need a solid 8-12 weeks of training. I do this mostly on my own time and spread the training over the entire year. My contract allows for professional development, and in the past, my contract also allowed for professional development. The engineers and IT support people were allotted nothing. No time. No training. How could they improve?

The next move I made was to make a list of everything they had done, and done well.
I clearly started communicating these things to everyone, and in every way I could. I wanted them to be able to own projects and successes as individuals in a department.

Finally, I started telling teachers and staff to back-off. No more verbal demands. No more undocumented communication. No more narratives about slow internet. I made reporting issues a formal non-email process, and jobs were assigned based-on skill set and location. If we were short staffed, everyone did their best to cover any and all jobs.

Essentially, I split the department by separating the projects and responsibilities.  I was able to see who had skills that needed development, and I planned and funded professional development for the team.

The end result was also a huge policy manual and a smooth running department that could walk into a problem and walk out with a plan.

This was along time ago, but I still follow the same practices. A team should be able to do things that are greater than the sum of the individuals’ qualifications.

Plan. Budget. Divide. Conquer.

Tony DePrato

Posted in Educational Technology, Opinion | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Teachers & Administrators: Please Take the Assessment Reporting Survey

Teachers and Administrators, 

I need some data on how you do assessment reporting at your school. This survey is quick, and can be totally anonymous. This is for some research I am working-on.

Assessment Reporting Survey

Tony DePrato

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Weighted grades suck

Man, I’ve been gone for far too long. I mean my last post was like back in the Reagan administration! So I thought I’d come back to blogging with something not really too techy but nonetheless important. I want to talk about weighted grades and how bad they are and what we can do to replace them.

What are weighted grades?
Weighted grades utilize categories and then each category has a certain percentage. I know that’s not very clear but check out the example we will be using for this post below.

* Tests = 40%
* Quizzes = 30%
* Homework = 20%
* Participation = 10%

As you can see if you add up all the percentage you will reach 100%. This is the basic set up for weighted grading. Teachers can have more or less but it must add up to 100%.

Why do teachers/schools use weighted grades
It all has to do with volume. If you use a point only grading system, where everything has a point value and no categories, and you have fifteen homework assignments that total 500 points and two tests that total 200 points, then you can see how homework grades can overpower the assessments. Check out the example below to see what I mean. Let’s assume this is a typical student with no extreme test anxiety.

As you can see this student (completely fictitious by the way) did reasonably well on her/his homework (B average) but when it came time for the tests, there is a big drop. You can also see they are nearly failing, but when you see the C+ on the final grade you think – this student didn’t do too bad. The final grade doesn’t reflect what is happening. What is happening was that the homework grades were overpowering the test grades thus not giving a realistic depiction of what is happening. There can be a lot of explanations here, maybe they were working on their homework with a tutor, friend or parent but maybe didn’t prepare for the tests too well, thus the student had not reached any mastery at all.

So people came up with weighted grades. Let’s take a look at those same grades but weighted. Let’s make the weighting for these grades equal 50% for homework and 50% for tests. What we need to do is multiply the percentage by the average for each category and then add them together.

Now the average is 72.94%. A little more reliable. Now, let’s re-weight those categories. Let’s make tests 70% and homework 30%. Now the result is a 68.36% (D+ grade). This works even better. You are probably saying to yourself Patrick – what’s the problem? This seems to work! At first it does but let’s look at a more complicated scenario in the next section.

When and A- actually equals a B+
In this example we will look at student with 4 different categories listed below.
* Tests = 40%
* Quizzes = 30%
* Homework = 20%
* Participation = 10%

Now let’s go take a look at Fred’s grades (I like the name Fred). So check out the Fred’s academic performance.

He has a steady 90% A- right now but that will change. I am going to give Fred an A (94%) on his next quiz and watch what happens to his overall grade.

Holy crap! Fred had an A-, received an 94%, A on his last quiz and his grade dropped from a 90% A- to a B+. Now let me say that one more time. Fred had 90% = A-. He took a quiz and scored a 94% = A. His last grade was higher than his overall averaged yet it dropped his grade!

So what the hell happened here? Why did everything go all pear shaped. Why did up become down? For that we need to look into the math.

Here is the formula which explains how this is calculated. I’ll write it in words and then with numbers:
(Tests weighting) + (Quizzes weighting) + (Homework weighting) + (Participation weighting)

The actual equation:
(85.1 x .40) + (97.6 x .30) + (84.9 x .20) + (90 x .10) = 89.3, B+

The first set of numbers represents the test weighting and so on. What happened was that Fred had a 100% quiz average before quiz #3. When he scored an A, it dropped his quiz average which ultimately dropped his overall average. So there it is – the correct math explaining why a students grade dropped from an A- to a B+ even though they scored an A on a quiz.

This is not some mythical grading unicorn that doesn’t happen ever – this happens all the time, every year. I mean how do you explain that to a student or a parent? How do you show them this (or similar equation) and expect that to justify that their student did well. It’s not good enough. It simply does not seem fair.

How did you do that again?
Another issue with weighting grades is the math behind it. As you can see, the math behind it is not that difficult, yet I would guess that over 50% of teachers I’ve encountered who use weighted grades could not explain it to their students or parents.

I’ve even have had high school counselors come to me and inquire about situations like this. These are smart people but in their mind it doesn’t make sense even though it is mathematically correct.

Now if the teachers and counselors are a little unclear about it can you guess how many students know how to calculate their grades? Yep – shockingly low. Shouldn’t people understand how this is calculated? You bet they should. Transparency within school is key to its success. It shouldn’t be a black box where the only people who knows what is happening are the people working there.

The first thing to do is take weighted grades and dump them at the beginning of the next school year. Just dump them man – get rid of them. Then move to a point only system. Here you can have a few a choices of how to deal with points but it boils down to good planning.

1,000 points
This solution is give all teachers 1,000 points. They have to create assignments, assessments, projects, whatever but it must total 1000 points. This forces the teacher(s) to plan carefully, thoughtfully and make sure that no entry can overpower another entry. That way everyone knows – without asking- how the grade is calculate. Just add up all the points and divide by 1000. Simple for admin, parents and students.

The downside to this is that the teachers won’t be too happy. Teachers like the freedom to evaluate and change their course on the fly as they needs arise. Also, what if they spend too much time on a lesson and can’t get all 1,000 points in? These are legitimate concerns but it does give a solid structure that gives the teachers.

Another argument against this is that there are some classes where it may be difficult to work 1,000 points such as drama, music or art classes were performance and long term projects are the norm.

Another possibility is to give some freedom but with a tiny catch. Allow teachers to use a point only system but allow them to come up with what the final number of points will be. However, teachers need to plan and submit all their plans for graded assignments/assessments. It should also be revealed to students/parents as well. Transparency is key here.

Another more radical approach is dumping grades all together but that’s a post for another time. For now, however, if you’re using weighted categories – try dumping them to a more transparent and fairer point only system.

What do you think? Leave those comments below.

Posted in Opinion, Patrick Cauley | Tagged , | 4 Comments