10 Tools to Get Started with Blended Learning

I’m often asked by teachers how to get started doing Blended Learning. My answer is always “why do you want to try Blended Learning?” Rather than trying to be cheeky or coy about my practice, I’m trying to begin a conversation about the value of moving learning online. If you haven’t determined why you’re doing it, your attempts will be unfocused and confusing for students. So my suggestion is that you consider your goals – what I refer to as the “verbs” (connect, network, collaborate, cooperate, create, etc.) – and then create the Blended Learning experiences that fit.

Once you know what you’re trying to do, here are the 10 tools I recommend to get started with Blended Learning.

1. For those of you who don’t have a LMS (Learning Management System) at your school to host your online learning activities, I highly recommend Edmodo. It can do most everything that an expensive LMS can do, but is free for individual teachers. An interesting option with Edmodo is the ability to connect with other teachers’ courses. Edmodo has iOS and Android apps, so it’s a good mobile solution too.

2. If I were looking to begin a course from scratch and wanted a LMS, I’d probably choose Schoology. Envisioned as more of a social learning network than the typical LMS, Schoology looks and feels like Facebook, but with the powerful features teachers want. Students report they don’t want their classes interfering with their Facebook life, and Schoology gets the most out of students already well-honed social networking skills in their academic life. Best of all, it’s free. There is a fee for adding “power features”, but prices are fairly low.

3. WordPress is my favorite tool. Reading and writing are more important than ever in the 21st century, and blogging allows students to improve not only as writers but also as readers and thinkers. WordPress is the platform of choice for professional bloggers, and I think it’s one all students should learn. (If you have Google Apps for Edu, Blogger is a good alternative.) WordPress.com is free, and hosted for you, making it easy to start blogging in minutes. With WordPress.org, you can self-host your blog, and customize it a thousand ways. [NOTE: WordPress can also be a powerful LMS! For details, contact me!]

4. Evernote is a complete information management system that my students and I can’t do without. This free tool allows you to take notes in many formats, including voice and handwritten, and stores them on your devices or in the cloud. Evernote has excellent apps for all mobile devices, and users with an account can sync information across all devices instantaneously. My students keep all their research information in Evernote, and can make these public for me and others to view. Evernote also has “clipping” plug-ins for browsers that make capturing information super easy.

5. Twitter is both an excellent tool for connecting students and teachers, as well as a valuable learning resource! My students and I use Twitter as our base social networking platform for our Personal Learning Networks, bringing in the collective wisdom of crowds (up to half a billion users now!). Teachers can use Twitter to follow leading innovative educators, and to follow “hashtags” that fit their interests – #isedchat, for example, is a weekly chat of hundreds of independent school teachers. Twitter can be a great tool for “backchanneling” during lectures or research projects, allowing students to ask questions that many people can answer. (I have my students create accounts they use for academic purposes – part of building a positive digital footprint!) To start building your PLN on Twitter, follow me (@MikeGwaltney), and find more Educators on the Twitter4Teachers Wiki. Read my recommendations for how to use Twitter in your class.

6. Use Screencast-o-Matic to produce instructional videos. Screencasts are also a great way to answer the same question time after time after time.  Many teachers who have flipped their classes use Screencast-o-Matic to record their  content delivery videos (less than 10 minutes apiece, typically). While Screencast-o-Matic is a free service and does not require  software download, the $15/year Pro Account is well worth the price.  This small fee gives you access to easy-to-use editing tools, storage and organization of recordings, and more efficient ways to upload videos to YouTube (if desired).

7. If you have ever been frustrated that your bookmarks from one computer aren’t available on another, Diigo is a solution.  At its most basic, Diigo allows you to access all of your bookmarks from anywhere on the web.  There are a variety of toolbars and shortcuts to make this process seamless.  Other great features include the ability to tag, highlight, and annotate webpages that you bookmark.  Your notes appear when you re-visit those page and can be aggregated by visiting your list on Diigo’s website.  Perhaps the most powerful feature are those that support collaboration and sharing.  Your bookmarks and lists can be made public or shared with a defined group.  Group members are notified when new sites are added to a list and comments can be read by others that visit the page. Diigo also has numerous groups you may join (such as Classroom 2.0), making it another great tool to grow your PLN.

8. Voicethread is one of the most popular online learning tools in use today. Teachers may create voicethreads for students to record comments demonstrating knowledge or problem-solving methodology; students may create voicethreads to tell a story or hold an asychronous conversation with classmates; the possibilities are endless! Post images or video for others or have them create their own threads as an alternate presentation and collaborative tool. Art teachers use it to post images of student works and perform peer critiques.  Dance instructors and physical education teachers and coaches could post videos of rehearsals and games for analysis and feedback. Voicethread has an educator version that is reasonably priced, providing greater privacy and easier account management.

9. Google Drive is “a place where you can create, share, collaborate, and keep all of your stuff. You can upload and access all of your files, including videos, photos, Google Docs, PDFs and beyond.” (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/…) Google Docs is built into Google Drive, perfect for creating and collaborating in real time on documents, spreadsheets and presentations. You can add and reply to comments and receive notifications when other people comment on shared items. You can get started with 5GB of storage for free.

10. TodaysMeet is a great tool for creating “backchannels” during class meetings or as a chat room for students to use asynchronously.  No accounts or sign-up is necessary.  Name your room, choose how long you’d like it available, then send the link to whomever you’d like to have access.  It’s also great for public note-taking, brainstorming, etc.

This is a Top 10 list, but a bonus tool I can’t ignore is Wikispaces. I’ve used Wikispaces with my students for years as a site to host student-created work and for allowing students to collaborate on large projects. For a sample, check out our AP U.S. History wikispace: http://apush-wiki-marlborough-school.wikispaces.com/

Many thanks to my colleagues Craig Luntz and Melissa Wert for collaborating with me on this list as co-facilitators in our OSG professional development course on Blended Learning.

What’s your Professional Growth Plan?

[blackbirdpie id=”126303801408892928″]

I’m sharing David Truss‘s excellent post about flipping professional development. Many educators are starting to understand the flipped classroom movement, but how many have “flipped” their PD?

For those of us with PLNs (Personal Learning Network) that include the edu-blogosphere, Twitter, Nings, etc., David’s explanation of how he chooses his PD will seem very familiar. Certainly, I know I’m much more intentional with my professional development choices as a result of online discussion and anytime learning.

If you don’t have a robust PLN, I’d recommend starting one. For a quick explanation of just one reason why a PLN could make you a better professional, study this visual, and read David’s post.

Note: I’m sharing David’s idea and visual under his CC license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

How to Make a Class Backchannel


Yesterday I posted a “Twitter Matrix” for education, which generated a fair amount of buzz in the micro-blogging world. A few people sent me messages asking if I could explain how I make my class backchannel, so here goes.

First of all, I think of the backchannel as the conversation that might otherwise normally happen in class within students’ minds, or between each other. It’s the communication that happens between two or more students about their experience of class and their own learning. To be clear, classes have always had backchannels of conversation, the difference now ist that technology allows us to put them to better use. When these conversations become public, students and teachers have an opportunity to learn from each other, and questions get answered, and issues get addressed.

Here are two ways that I have used Twitter as a backchannel:

1. Make a Class Account. This year, I created a “LIVE” Twitter account for my US History class. On our private class wiki, I shared the log-in information, and students are allowed to access the account during class. Students can post anything they wish in this backchannel, and we all see it.

An advantage to this common account is anonymity – it’s impossible to know who posted since we’re all using the same acct. It’s been my experience that some students will ask questions or make comments that could be very helpful only if they don’t risk embarrassing themselves. Of course anonymity also means freedom to be malicious with the class Twitter account, so I highly recommend a discussion of netiquette and integrity before giving this privilege to students.

Creating a common class account is easy. Just think of a name, create the Twitter account linked to YOUR email address, choose a simple password (school name?), and share the log-in information on your private class website.

2. Make a class hashtag. When I first joined Twitter, I thought hashtags (# + short term, eg “#edchat”) were created by Twitter or something, and wasn’t quite sure how they worked. Well, they’re really easy – anyone can make a hashtag by simply putting # in front of a word or set of characters. Hashtags allow you to locate student tweets by searching the term. It’s Twitter’s way of organizing zillions of tweets.

In my class, I ask all my students to create an “academic” Twitter account, (they may not wish to share a personal account with class, if they have one) and then each unit I choose a hashtag that we can all use to post comments and questions (ex. #coldwar). We can then each search for this tag and see what we’re all posting and comment back and forth. I’ve also created a widget for our private class wiki that shows the results of our backchannel, so we don’t all have to search Twitter.

By using these public hashtags, we also involve people outside our class who may have common interests. If we tweet for a week or two with the tag #coldwar, we automatically find many collaborators on Twitter that may wish to answer questions, and we also learn from others who are sharing their ideas. Social Learning happens!

There’s plenty more to talk about on this topic of class backchannels, and certainly Twitter isn’t the only way to go. If you have other ideas, don’t hesitate to leave a comment here, or tweet me @MikeGwaltney. And why not use the tag #classbackchannel? 🙂

Twitter for Education

UPDATE: See also my post “How to Make a Class Backchannel”

I know many teachers and are exploring using Twitter as a learning tool, both for themselves and for their students. Administrators are imagining ways it could be helpful for staff development and for communicating with stake-holders. Here’s a visual to help focus the thinking a bit (click through for larger version):

I ran across this Twitter Matrix about a year ago on Mark Sample’s blog and it really helped me clarify my thinking about how I wanted to use Twitter to enhance student learning. I was clear that I didn’t want to use it just to be using it – if it wasn’t going to lead to greater learning, it was just going to be more noise for students.

I’ve been getting good results using Twitter as a backchannel during class, allowing me to engage with students in new ways. Those that aren’t ready to comment out loud during class will frequently post to the backchannel, allowing me a new way to check for understanding. And because they can post questions there that I see in the last few minutes of class, I can answer them before they leave, meaning no student leaves with misunderstandings that embed in their brain before they return the next day.

If you follow the link to Mark’s blog, you’ll notice he believes Twitter acts as a “snark valve” because tweets are “unfiltered, in effect, the same comment somebody might mutter under his or her breath, uncensored, no-holds-barred opining. Yet the students know classmates are following the course hashtag and at the very least that I am listening (and contributing) as well.  The backchannel assumes a Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse — using sarcasm both to show a kind of too-cool-for-school attitude but also to demonstrate that the student is in fact earnestly engaged with the material.”

How will you use Twitter? I hope the matrix leads to creative ideas. And if they do, kindly tweet me @MikeGwaltney, or leave a more lengthy comment here on my blog.

ITSC 2011


The latest Education Technology get-together is the big Instructional Technology Strategies Conference being put on by the Organization for Educational Technology & Curriculum (OETC). This conference in Portland, Oregon, Feb. 20-22 features a “who’s who” of ed tech leaders with keynotes by David Zach and Roger Schank, and workshops being led by Alec Couros, Scott Elias, Lucy Gray, Bud Hunt, Tim Lauer, Dean Shareski, Ira Socol, and Jeff Utecht, to name just several.

I’ll be joining my colleague Peter Pappas (@edteck) in LIVE tweeting and blogging the conference Sunday through Tuesday. Follow me on Twitter (@MikeGwaltney), and bookmark or follow the RSS feed for my blog to catch what I’m sharing.

Peter’s blog is Copy/Paste, where he has already posted some great information for following the conference, including this Wiffitti:

http://flash.locamoda.com/wiffiti.com/cloud/cataclysm.swf?id=52689&title=1

Peter and I will coordinate on the sessions we attend, and you can follow our Tweets and blog posts over the 3 days of the conference.

For a little background on the City of Roses hosting the conference, check out Peter’s great Portland Prezi Preview.

See you in PDX this weekend! Be sure to network with us: (thanks to Sacha Chua for this SlideShare!):

Twitter Apps for All Your Devices

Educators who use Twitter (aka Twittering Teachers) know that the popular micro-blogging and social networking site is an indispensable tool for staying up to date with news and trends in education. It is, hands down, the best tool for ongoing professional development that I have ever used – it keeps me in touch with innovative and thoughtful educators, from whom I learn something every day.

Because Twitter is so important to me, I need to take it with me wherever I go. For me, that means I need it on my Mac, my iPad, and my iPhone.  The twitter.com website offers me some basic tools and is often my first choice, but when I want the full Twitter experience (most of the time) I turn to some great third-party applications that serve my needs well.

Of course, there are hundreds of “Best of Twitter” lists online, and this is only my list of apps that I use and love. This post is not intended to be a full review of all Twitter apps for Mac, iPad, or iPhone, but beginning Tweeters may find this list a good place to begin.

Click on any of the images to open the larger version in a new tab/window.

At my desk, on my Mac

At my desktop or laptop, getting to Twitter.com and using all its features (even the new layout, which I like) is easy. I frequently use website to Tweet pages I find while browsing. I use the “AddThis” add-on/plug-in for Firefox and Chrome, and it directs me to Twitter.com, and posting there is simple enough.

But I find that Twitter’s website is not so great for managing my followers’ Tweets, or for easily tracking the activity of people I follow.  For this, I prefer Tweetdeck:

Tweetdeck can be customized many many ways. From the screenshot above, you can tell that I have organized columns for mentions, favorite tweeters, frequent searches, etc. Tweetdeck helps me stay organized, while also connecting me with other social media accounts, like Facebook.  And, if you have more than one Twitter account, Tweetdeck lets you be logged in simultaneously.

On the go, with my iPad

The iPad is my newest device, and I’m in love. The iPad’s size means it keeps a low profile, making it easy to use in meetings without really being noticed. Further, it’s nearly full keyboard makes it easy to type a blog post or 140 character tweet quickly.

Sadly, the Tweetdeck app for iPad does not measure up (hopefully soon it will be improved!). On my iPad, I use Osfoora HD which has some killer features I enjoy, especially the one-touch ability to see all the lists that my followers have added me to – great to see who I’m grouped with.

Osfoora does most everything I need when I’m on the go. It lacks the saved lists functionality of Tweetdeck on my Mac, but it has excellent Lists functionality, and shows me all the “nearby” tweets (if you let it use your current location).

Twitter’s own iPad client is pretty good too. It’s basic, but sometimes basic is just right:

A frustrating thing about Twitter is that Tweets go away, seemingly never to be found again. Recently though I discovered Tweet Library for iPad to solve this problem. Tweet Library actually tracks down all my former Tweets (that’s right, ALL of my former tweets, up to 3,000) and stores them for me, accessible on my iPad. If there’s a particularly popular Tweet from last year that I’d like to ReTweet, it’s now on my iPad all ready to go. Can’t remember the location of a resource I tweeted a few years ago? It’s in the Tweet Library. Genius.

In my pocket, on my iPhone

I’m glad that Tweetdeck for iPhone gets right what the Tweetdeck iPad app gets wrong. It stores columns and does a good job organizing them as long as I limit myself to 6 columns or so (more than that tends to slow things down or crash the app).

And of course, Twitter’s own app for iPhone is simple and elegant, a joy to use when I just want to post something simple, or check for messages.

That’s my list of my favorite Twitter apps as of October 2010.

Have a favorite app? I’d love to know. Leave your comment!

Why Teachers Should be on Twitter

Laura Walker (@mrslwalker) recently posted her 9 reasons why teachers should be on Twitter. Three of them really resonated with me as these are concepts always on my mind, and frequently in conversations with colleagues at my school: collaboration, reflection, and innovation.

I have no doubt that most educators on Twitter would agree with Laura. I wonder though what my colleagues who aren’t on Twitter would say. My question for them: “How do you collaborate, reflect on your practice, and innovate?”

Together we’re better
Twitter can be like a virtual staffroom for me, which I can step into when it suits me: in the queue at the supermarket or waiting for for the kettle to boil. I know that within seconds I can access a stream of links, ideas, opinion and resources from a hand-picked selection of global professionals.
Self-awareness and reflective practice
Excellent teachers reflect on what they are doing in their schools and look at what is going well in order to maintain and develop it, and what needs improvement in order to make it better. Teachers on Twitter share these reflections and both support and challenge each other. Reading about other educators’ experiences has made me question my own practice on a number of occasions, and whilst the resulting changes may only be incremental they are nonetheless important steps in the journey to improvement.
Newsroom and innovation showcase
Twitter helps me stay up to date on news and current affairs, as well as on the latest developments in my areas of interest:  school leadership, technology and languages. By following leading individuals and organisations, Twitter users can stay right at the bleeding edge of innovation and creativity, and literally be among the first to know when a new product is launched, article is published or opinion is voiced.Read more at mrslwalker.com