As we kick of school year 2015-16 I’ve been working with new teachers as they build out a central online space where they can easily and effectively communicate with their students (and parents).
Without a mandated learning management system our teachers are left with the wonderful situation of choice, but is it wonderful for all? It can be anxiety inducing to be presented with a whole host of options and just a few days to pick one and get started. Graded upper school teachers (Lower School have committed to Blogger) use a range of tools to create a home base for their classes and students navigate the variety easier than you might think, but I regularly get asked – which is best? This is not an easy question to answer as teachers have different needs and expectations (students do too!) so I thought I would just lay out a list of possible options and stick with some of the pros and cons.
Sticking within the google apps for education domain is always a good idea and with google sites you will have some flexibility with layout and design. Many teachers are put off by the boxy look of Google Sites and it can be difficult to move away from it – but it’s not impossible. Building out a site can be challenging at first and I would recommend sitting down with your tech coach or digging into some tutorial videos before you start to build anything. I also urge you to draw out your site on a piece of paper first so that you have a clear idea about what pages you need, the menu titles, the links as well as which google apps you might need to use (calendar and folders at least!)
High School Maths
Middle School Humanities
A benefit of Google Sites is that if you build it carefully you can re-use the site year after year, this can be more difficult with some other options that I will outline. The downside to Google Sites is that the learning curve is definitely steep and the aesthetics are off putting for some.
All of the students at Graded have a blogger account and they begin their digital portfolios in 5th grade. As a result, our students are quite fluent in blogger, and so it makes sense for teachers to keep up with them! Many teachers decide to use blogger as their classroom site so that they can get under the hood and learn their way around so that they can support their students. While the main structure of blogger is a blog (obviously) you can also create static pages that behave like stand alone pages on a website. These are useful for resource pages or unit outline pages or anything that you don’t want to update too regularly (although there are some neat ways to work around this).
Many teachers will argue that Blogger looks nicer and it is easier to pretty it up with images and I don’t disagree. But it doesn’t play as nicely when you want to embed docs or slides because you need to publish the docs/slides before embedding into blogger. I’ve seen a few teachers embed google slides into their blogger pages and then simply update the slides and not the blog. This is a really neat work around and would certainly reduce the work that you need to do under the blogger hood.
I’ll be the first to admit that I use Veracross as a grading, reporting and attendance taking tool only. But, in preparation for this article I have started to explore some of the options that Veracross has as an alternative to sites and blogger. I am surprised by what is on offer. I think that more teachers might start to use Veracross as their main portal for communication with parents and students. It makes sense, our one requirement is to input assignment details into Veracross, so why not just put everything there at the same time?
Each course is assigned a website and as the teacher of that course you have the editing rights to that site. You are limited to the following headings for general navigation but you can add as many stand alone pages as you please. I imagine that it would be useful to add stand alone pages for big projects or course syllabi but these could also be linked to in the resources section so you can just keep them in google doc format.
Home – You can set this as a static page of your choosing and it will also list all of the upcoming assessments. Not a bad landing page for students, parents and support teachers.
Posts – The posts page feels like a new feed of the teacher’s status updates. Whenever you want to make an announcement to your students this would be the place to do it.
Timeline – If the posts are the status updates then the timeline is the newsfeed. This records everything that you’ve added to assignments/calendar
Calendar – Pulls the info from the assignments that you have added (formative/summative/learning) so you don’t need to fill this out. Nice visual for the students to see what is coming up.
Resources – As expected this links to a resources page. You add links or docs to a library and then select what will be displayed in the resources section. You could just link once to a google drive folder and then manage that folder with the subheadings.
Photos – Share some albums? Very facebooky. I think that there might even be a iOS app that works alongside this.
Discussions – This is essentially a forum (you know, like Reddit… )
We also have Hapara’s Teacher Dashboard available and I’m keen to take a closer look at their new Workspace functionality. It looks like a google classroom competitor and I imagine, because we are paying for it, it competes pretty well. I’ll save details about the Workspace for a later post (when I’ve had time to get my hands dirty with it) but you can take a peak at some of the features in the video below
I think that in the long run it is great that we offer our teachers some choice in how they set up their learning environments, but I do think that in the future I will provide far more support up front to guide teachers in their decision making. Perhaps some guiding questions to help teachers start with their planning:
- How comfortable are you navigating new digital spaces? (Or how much do you enjoy the frustration of new digital spaces?)
- What kind of information do you want your students to have digital access to?
- What is important to you; aesthetics or practicality?
Just in case you are wondering – I am team Google Sites.