Effective use of interactive programs and how to trick your students into learning.

Lets face it, double Mathematics on a Friday afternoon can be a hard sell in any school.  In an ideal school all afternoons would be Art, Drama and Physical Education but the reality of timetabling in secondary school means that just about every class ends up with at least one afternoon lesson.  With the limited amount of teaching time in any school year we can not afford to waste valuable time but engaging students of an afternoon can be tough. An effective use of interactive programs can trick your students into learning without them realising it.

Spend ten minutes on the internet and you realise that there are hundreds of people creating thousands of educational tools in just about any area.  The biggest problem is that they all vary greatly in quality.  I came across a site that claims to help teach Romeo and Juliet.  It is a simple line maze that you navigate with arrow keys.  One you complete the maze you get a small quote.  Fun if you like mazes but a complete waste of time if you want your students to develop a deeper understanding of the Shakespearean text.  It is imperative that all sites are evaluated for the learning outcomes we are trying to achieve.

RollercoasterFinding a wide range of interactives is relatively easy.  In a quality search engine, like Bing, just search for ‘interactive’, ‘games’, ‘fun activities’ and the subject matter.  Look at several of the sites and create a short list – make sure you go beyond the first page of the search engine.  Play them yourself and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do you want the students to learn from this experience?
  2. Does this program address these objectives?
  3. Is the program/game/interactive easy to use?
  4.  Will it capture the students interest and maintain it?
  5. Is there any advertising etc. that is not appropriate for your students to view?

Once I have answered all these questions I often choose two or three and place screen clippings onto OneNote for students to easily access the link.

Music interactivesAll this takes a huge amount of time.  Many programs I think they would love, they quickly lose interest in and others that I think are lame, they love.  One way I overcome this is by getting my students to do the leg work.  I offer a prize for the best interactive on the topic they are currently studying.  They need to review it and if it scores a 7 or more they email the site and review to me and I put it on OneNote for all to share.  Students are expected to address the following questions:

  1. What does this site teach you about?
  2. How easy is it to use? Explain?
  3. What are the best parts?
  4. What are three things that could be done to improve this game/interactive?
  5.  What age group is it designed for?  Why do you think this?
  6. Would you recommend it to other students? Why/Why not?
  7. Rate this game/interactive out of 10?

This gives me 30 individual search engines all working towards a common goal.  Often they forget that there is a prize on offer.  I sometimes get students to work in pairs or groups of three and the quality of conversation amazes me.  They are very harsh critics but when somebody finds an effective learning game or interactive the buzz around the classroom can be electric.

HealthSome classes (or individual students) find the freedom of searching for an interactive task tough.  They get easily distracted and end up playing something completely irrelevant.  For these student I tend to have a few screen clippings, with URL link, already on OneNote.  They need to do the same task but just with the sites I have already placed on OneNote.

As an extension to this you could even get students to design their own interactive or game.  There are heaps of programs out there that can assist with this.  Ask your IT teacher for some ideas.

The use of interactive sites and programs is free and fun.  Students can learn while thinking they are playing games and it can reinvigorate a topic that is becoming a bit boring.  Effective use of interactive programs can trick your students into learning without encouragement and cajoling that is often need for an afternoon lesson after a long day.

Sites shown above:


Top 10 Free Stuff for Teachers! (and your students)

free stuff

Here is my top 10 countdown of free resources found on the Web.  The best is at the bottom. If you know any that are better let me know!

10. Teacher written sites – Why reinvent the wheel when you can get it for free?  Many great educators have produced some fantastic stuff and made it available for all to use.  YouTube, websites, and blogs are all fantastic resources just ripe for using.  Some of my favourite are:

Khan AcademyKhan Academy

Bozeman ScienceBozeman Science

Matthew ObrianMatthew O’Brian

Australian Teacher Blog   Australian Teachers Blog

ixplain9. iXplain – This app is a pen and ink app that also records voice.  Fantastic  for getting students to explain their thinking or creating a tutorial for student and saving it as an mp4  Find it here.

Mosaic8. Mosaic – You need Office 365 for this one but if you do, Mosaic is for you.  Create portals and unique classroom hubs.  It can be used on touch screens as well.  A great way to make things easier on 365.  Find Mosaic here.

Skype7. Skype – This is a great resource for your classroom.  Huh? I hear may of you say.  Paired with Skype in the Classroom students can explore the big wide world without leaving their desks.  Talk with a Scientist working in  Antarctica or talk to a class across the world.  Heaps of lesson plans and ideas available.

To download Skype click here.

 Office Mix 6. Office Mix – Ok you need to have PowerPoint for this free add in.  It is styled as ‘Superpowers for PowerPoint’.   And WOW does it deliver!!  This turns PowerPoint into an interactive one-to-one demonstration and interactive tool.  It can be used to help create a flipped classroom or a great way for students to develop tutorials for each other and to demonstrate their understanding.

To find out more watch this:

Office Mix – a quick tour of features

Office mix is available here.

Ontastic5. Onetastic – Onetastic makes OneNote even more fantastic.  It is for the more advanced OneNote user but there are a few things that are great for the novice as well.  From automating tasks you do all the time with macros to OneCalendar, Onetastic does many of the things you thought you would like and many things you have not even though of yet!  One of the great things about Ontastic is that you can download the bits that you need and ignore the bits you will not need.

Onetastic is available here.

twitter logo4. Twitter – Whether it is for your students or for yourself Twitter is a great marketplace for ideas.  Opinions, research and just good professional discussions, Twitter has it all in nice 140 character bite sized chunks.  An excellent thing to have open during a boring staff meeting or a great way to encourage your students to be precise within their communications.

Twitter is here.

Tweet DeckTweetdeck is a great way to follow several hashtags at once.

It is also available for free here.

PIL network3. Partners in Learning Network – Good PD costs a lot right?  Not here.  Microsoft host an amazing Professional Development on many aspects of technology across the curriculum.  There is also access to free tools and a bank of learning activities from the most amazing and innovative educators across the world.  There are discussions on just about any topic and a whole lot more.  It is about great practice within classrooms across hundreds of subjects.

Join the Partners in learning Network here.  Tell them Ineke sent you 🙂

To do this you need a Microsoft account.  Sign up here if you do not already have one.

Sway2. Sway – Unlike anything you have ever seen before.  Word was created to replace the typewriter, PowerPoint was created to replace the slide show but Sway is just for itself.  As they say on the Sway website:

Sway is an app for expressing ideas in an entirely new way.

It helps you to put ideas and graphics easily into a Sway which will then become the graphic artist for you.  Fantastic for student presentations or for sharing ideas.  Check out example Sways and have a go for yourself here.  You will need a Microsoft account (see above for how to do this).

cropped-onenote.png1. OneNote – They say that the best things in life are free and this proves it!  OneNote is the best thing to come on a screen in my opinion.  A notebook you will never loose and can have everything in the one spot.  It is a filing cabinet in a computer and you can share with as many or few as you wish.  I use it as my students exercise and text book – always up to date and current with everything being relevant to what I am teaching.  It is my planning, mark book and meeting agenda and minutes.    It is found on just about every platform and every device so you always have your OneNote at hand.  If you only look at one thing on my list it has to be this.

Find OneNote here.

OneNote classroom creatorOneNote Class book Creator is a great app that makes setting up a class notebook even easier.

Download it from here.

Skype Translator, I can not wait to use it in the classroom!

Skype translator

I can not wait to use Skype translator in my classroom.  It will allow my students to communicate with other students across the world.  But this is not what has me excited.  What I am keen to try is using Skype within my classroom.

Let me explain.

UNHCRMy school has the highest intake of refugee students in the state.  Many will just arrive in the classroom with no notice and no English.  More than half will have signifiable trauma issues and all will have varying levels of prior education.  Many will have spent years in refugee camps or will have been displaced within their own country for years, fleeing persecution or internal conflict.  Currently we have over 80 different nationalities represented on campus but that number fluctuates.


Assuming that the child starts with the same level of education as their Australian peers, it is expected that these new arrivals will take about 7 years to get back to the same point as their cohort because of language.  If their trauma involved in their past then this ‘catch up time’ will increase significantly.  Imagine how we could close the gap if I could explain scientific concepts in their native language. Skype Translator would allow me answer questions, explain tasks and generally communicate with students with whom I have only be able to hold single word conversations.  No longer would I be pointing to a picture of a cell and then writing the word, pointing to it, saying as clearly as I can CELL. and then getting the student to copy a picture.  No explanations of structure, function or even location.  With Skype translator I will be able to ask them, in almost real time, about what they already know.  I could pitch tasks at their level.  Use a proper constructivist approach to build on their prior knowledge and then give them proper, relevant feedback rather than holding a thumb up and saying ‘good’ (I have to be careful of even this for in some cultures the thumbs up sign is rude).


Team up Skype translator with Bing translator and OneNote and I will have everything covered. On a pastoral level it will allow us to check in with students to determine how they are coping.  Are they experiencing any issues or do they have any questions?  In the past we have discovered, quite by accident, that students are having simple issues that they could not communicate.  Simple things like how much food costs at the canteen or what time the bus leaves were taking a long time to be asked, deciphered and then answered and again understood by the students.  Skype translator will help students communicate their needs and wants in a way that we were only able to get by using a very expensive translator service in the past.

Modified picture To start with we know there are going to be limitations.  Skype are starting with Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, German, Italian, Japanese,  Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. Most of our students come from Africa and Asia so many of the languages that they speak are not yet covered but Skype plan on quickly expanding this to over 40 different languages.  Logistics such as headsets will need to acquired and I would love to allow all the students to communicate as a class in discussions so speakers will need to be connected. The spinoffs for our international students are incredible and I can not wait  to try out this amazing technology within in my classroom to allow a more equitable access for all of my students within the classroom.

Technology – The great divide between teachers that do and teachers that do not.

I have noticed throughout my career that there are two types of teachers:  The first are those that embrace technological change, run with the new, try everything that crosses their screen. The second are those that think that using the internet to research and Word to present an assignment is using technology effectively in their classroom (if they do that much).

Some of these teachers are new to the classroom and have had little experience with technology through their schooling.  Commodore 64Many of the teachers that do not actively use technology as part of their teaching pedagogy started teaching when I was in primary school or

before.  I am not that old.  My cousins got a Vic 20 when I was about 10 years old and I was so excited when my parents purchased a Commodore 64.  BBC’s were the height of technology in the classroom in grade 6 and we all went to the AV room to watch Behind The News every Tuesday at 11:30 live on the ABC.  Back then computers were pretty unstable.  You needed to have some basic programming skills to get the most out of the software.  The user manuals took longer to read than the program took to run and if you pressed the wrong button you lost everything.   Printouts were always dot-matrix and looked pretty horrible.

Do not get me wrong, some teachers who are more experienced will take to technology like a dog will chase a bone.  But for some reason, many will not.  When talking to them about the reasons why they do not use technology in their classrooms I get answers such as…

“What if I press the wrong button?”

“I do not know what to do.”

“I might break the computer.”

Back when many of us were introduced to computers they broke pretty easily and had lengthy manuals.  You never just pushed a button to see what it did as you may wipe the hard drive.  Now computers are pretty bomb proof.  The programs are pretty stable and many even back themselves up.  Microsoft products do not even come with a manual as they are pretty intuitive and are designed to be ‘played with’.

COmputer HackerI have been to professional development training sessions where these same technophobes are saying how wonderful the program, idea or task is but then they go back to their classrooms and do the same old thing.  So what is the main difference between teachers that do use technology and those who don’t?  I think that these, very good teachers, have lost the ability, or are scared to play.  It is not their unwillingness to incorporate technology but the fear that they were taught when computers were new about ‘breaking’ the computer.

So what can we do to help people lose this fear?

Start with something that is pretty bomb proof.  Something that links in with what computer skills they already have.  My choice would be OneNote.  You can do amazing things at a very basic level.  Most teachers have some word processing skills and this is easily transferable from Word to OneNote.  Attack their fear head on.  Challenge them to crash the program in 15 minutes or less.   You can not be scared of achieving the task set.  Tell them they need to press every button and see what it does.  Some people may still find this a bit hard so get them to work in pairs, with another person as hesitant to use technology in the classroom as they are.  We know they will not break the computer.  They will get lost, so show then how to get back to where they need to be with as few steps as possible but reward getting lost with lollies or small prizes.  This will help to change their feelings about not wanting to push the wrong button.

Ribbon Hero  2 is also a good way to add a fun element for office 2007 and 2010 version. Read more here: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/education/archive/2012/02/15/ribbon-hero-2-free-software-for-teachers-in-february.aspx .

Enthusing Students through Creating a Film in Science

I had an amazing experience this year.  My colleague and I were reviewing a unit we taught on the creation of the universe last year.  It was a bit blah and students did not engage with the subject matter as much as we would have liked.  The other enemy of teaching was not on our side -time.  We though we would open it up a bit and give students ownership of their own learning and also allow them to work as a group.  We wanted to enthuse the student by creating a film in Science.  In Tasmania Grade 10 is the end of high school so many of our students would be going their separate ways and would not get to work together again.  We decided to take a chance.

We threw out everything we had done before.

The universe in my students hands.

The universe in my students hands.

A rubric was created and we went through what the students were to address.  We discussed that it would be peer assessed.  We discussed what the students knew about the beginning of life and the universe.  Students were told that they had four weeks to research how life the universe and everything came to be.  They needed to create  a film in science and an A4 hand out.  They were allowed to be in groups no larger than three.  We also took a risk and said that the mark was for the group.  There would be no allowances for the student who did nothing and they could not blame an individual for not having their work completed.  If the task was not handed in, the whole group got nothing.  This was made very clear.  We recommended that students mapped out who was doing what and create deadlines for when the research was going to be completed etc.  We also explained that each group would have a formal meeting once a week to discuss their progress.  Students were asked to consider copyright and they were informed that their films were going to be placed on YouTube for public viewing.  Then we left them to it.

As a support we created shared OneNote Notebooks where all students in a group could contribute the content.  We provided help on how to use PowerPoint to create a film in Science but students were allowed to construct their film anyway they wanted.  It was a bit messy.  Students needed to go to silent rooms to record their voiceovers.  Some students would spend some time not working at all.  As a group we very quickly became experts in free text to voice programs and sources for copyright free pictures and music.  I learned a lot about many different video programs and the difference between Microsoft’s PowerPoint versions for the Mac and PC.

In my meetings with the different groups I would generally ask 5 questions:

  • How are you going?
  • Are you having any problems?
  • How are you solving these problems?
  • Where are you going to next?
  • How can I help you?

The groups always amazed me.  Students were enthusiastic about Science by creating a film.  Even groups that looked like they were doing nothing were achieving.  Students who had not handed in a single thing all year were producing work.  There was one student who I had taught for 4 years.  The amount of assessable work he had produced in that time was negligible but in this task he was researching, contributing to his group and doing what we would expect an average student to do.  This topic was no longer ‘blah’ for my students.  They were connecting to it in a meaningful way.  Students were enthused by creating a film in Science.

I got some great films.  Out of 60 students only 3 groups did not get their films completely finished and 2 of those were only because they were not rendered.   This is amazing as the ‘hand it in on time’ rate up to now was about 60%.

Some quotes from my students about this task:

‘I loved this assignment.  It was so much better than doing a project.’

‘The film was a hard but a lot of fun.’

‘Some of it was hard to understand but I really got in to it.  I liked being able to talk about what I had found out with my group.  You should definitely de this again next year!’

I did have a few problems.  One parent really objected to her son being assessed as a ‘group’.  The rubric was done in a bit of a rush and needs some work.  The task needs a bit more definition, some scaffolding would not be a bad idea and students need to remember to focus on not using copyrighted material.  But overall this task is a keeper.  We will be continuing to get students to create a film in Science for this unit next year.

Here are some links to my students films if you would like to see for yourself.  They are not my best ones but generally average and below average students: