iPads vs. Laptops: the Showdown

N.B: I am currently enrolled in (and neck-deep in course content for) a summer AQ course on “Integration of Information and Computer Technology in Instruction, Part 2” and decided to post one of my assignments as a blog post. I’d love for my Cohort 21 community to weigh in on the discussion and fill me in on any arguments I may have missed! 

Inspired by a previous discussion in this course about the merits and drawbacks of iPads vs. laptops in the classroom, I chose to explore a series of articles that discussed this very topic. 

Here are the links to the articles I read:

For the love of laptops: As learning tools, tablets don’t cut it by Gary Stager, 2013

Day of the tablet: In classrooms, it’s the right tool for the job by Dan Brenner, 2013

IPads for College Classrooms: Not so fast, some professors say  by Ben Weider, 2011

The iPad in Education: Uses, benefits and challenges by Thierry Karsenti and Aurelien Fievez, 2013

My essential question that guided my inquiry into this topic was “Are iPads or laptop computers a better choice as a learning tool in classrooms?”

Interestingly, on AALF.org, not one article that I could find on 1-to-1 computing was published after 2014. This leads me to believe that this site has not been continuously updated, as I am confident that there are many, many articles and research summaries out there that have more up-to-date information. Because of this, several of the arguments made in the articles, especially those that argued against iPads as a learning tool, were outdated and no longer relevant. Here are my summaries: 

For the love of laptops: As learning tools, tablets don’t cut it by Gary Stager, 2013

This article argues that laptops are the best choice for learning in schools. The author begins by talking about how he has been providing professional development for schools implementing laptop programs for many years now, and how the adoption of the laptop in schools “embodied a school’s commitment to realizing the dreams of John Dewey, Seymour Papert, and John Holt: to embrace learning-by-doing anytime, anyplace, unencumbered by the traditional curriculum or bell schedule.” Herein lies my first concern with this article. This seems a very overly optimistic understanding of the actual impact of the use of laptops in schools. While yes, laptops in schools provide teachers with the opportunity to do new things in their classes, the examples of where schools have radically transformed their entire structure and pedagogy thanks to the possibilities of laptops are few and far between. I can think of a few examples – High Tech High comes to mind, for instance – but I would say that as a general rule, so far, technology use in schools has been less than transformative of the overall structure of schools. 

However, the author redeems himself somewhat when he states that his “work has been guided by a desire to help kids learn and do in ways and in knowledge domains that were otherwise inaccessible. Computing, the act of using a computer to make things—programs, novels, art, video, robots—is the game changer.” I appreciate that he recognizes that transformation is possible in the things we ask students to do, thanks to technology, because that, to me, has always been the end goal of technology integration.

The author’s principal arguments against the iPad are these: 

  • “The iPad can’t do the things I most value in a computer for learners” such as the creation of executable files, programming, robotics, and filmmaking. 
    • I would argue that most of this represents an outdated argument that does not take into account the many new apps and tools available on an iPad for filmmaking (iMovie, Adobe Clip) or programming and robotics (Scratch, Dash & Dot, etc.)
  • “The iPad is a consumption device” suitable mainly for consuming videos, e-textbooks (which “reinforces a quaint view of education that transfers agency from learners to publishers”)
    • Again, this is no longer the case as the number of apps available for creation of content continue to grow.
  • “The iPad provides an illusion of modernity with no real challenge to the nature of schooling” and is a “tool of compliance, not empowerment.”

Day of the tablet: In classrooms, it’s the right tool for the job by Dan Brenner, 2013

This article represents the opposing viewpoint to that of Gary Stager. Brenner argues that given the demands of schooling and student needs, the iPad is the ideal tool for the job. He ensures that he is clear in his assessment that there is a time and a place for laptops (for example, he mentioned that he typed this article on his laptop, not his tablet), but that iPads check all the right boxes for use in schools including portability, creation and production of work, communication between teachers and students, and going paperless. 

The portability of iPads, as compared to laptops, is Brenner’s first arguments. It’s hard to disagree with this. The battery life, size, and weight, especially for the price (when compared to similarly sized and weighted laptops) are difficult to match. Score one for the iPad!

One of my own primary arguments against the iPad, and one that came up in the iPads for College Classrooms article as well, is the fact that typing on an iPad is not ideal. For writing an essay, taking down notes, or doing any length of written communication, iPads are frustrating. However, the author pre-empts this argument by indicating that during the iPad pilot project he is discussing, students were provided with keyboard iPad cases. This, I think is a good thing. Without a keyboard, an iPad is nearly impossible to do any writing on. 

The ability to go paperless in the classroom, with iPads facilitating both teacher-student and student-to-student communication, is another good argument. In the pilot project he is discussing, all student work is submitted digitally, assesses it, and returns it digitally, cutting down on paper clutter and the possibility of misplacing work. Again, this is a valid argument, though I would also argue that this is more than possible with the use of laptops as well. 

Finally, Brenner argues that iPads provide the tools to allow students and teachers to be “researchers, questioners, creators of ideas, and producers of innovative thought and knowledge.” In particular, he talks about iBooks Author, iMovie, and iTunesU as particularly useful tools for teachers and students to create content. IMovie came up as an important tool in our discussion in this course as well. The ability to use the camera and immediately edit clips into a professional-looking movie, without all of the barriers to entry of a high-end editing suite, is a real plus. 

Summary and conclusion

I am not going to summarize the other two articles but simply reference some of their arguments in my conclusion.

First of all, all of the articles that I read were too outdated to be of much value, in my opinion. Many of the arguments against iPads included data that was no longer true. In particular, the iPads for College Classrooms article argued that since iPads require slow finger-typing, they make written coursework difficult. However, that argument is rendered moot if students have access to Bluetooth keyboards connected to their iPads. Similarly, the same article continues that the “finger-based tablets are passive devices that have limited use in higher education”, since professors and students cannot use them to easily annotate resources. Again, with the advent of the Apple Pencil, this argument is no longer based in reality and does not apply. With the advances in technology and the addition of new apps and accessories, iPads can take a strong advantage.

Advantage: iPAD 


IPads have always had the advantage over traditional laptops due to their portability, weight, and cost relative to similar-sized laptops. However, to really make an iPad as useful as a learning tool as possible, an Apple Pencil and a bluetooth keyboard are almost indispensible. The addition of these accessories does two things: they add to the overall weight and take away from the portability of iPads, and they add to the total cost. (A single Apple Pencil alone is worth $115!) 

Secondly, none of the articles were written recently enough to take into consideration the development of a new type of laptop – the netbook – such as Chromebooks, whose cost is considerably cheaper than an iPad, and whose portability is just about on par. 

Advantage: NONE 


Another argument that should be made in favour of Chromebooks (I’m moving away from laptops now, as my experience is almost entirely limited to Chromebooks in the classroom rather than traditional laptops) is that they are ideal for a school setting because of the ease of managing and updating them. Updates can be completed remotely and services can be added or removed at the click of a button from the administrator’s console. 

Adding and removing apps from an iPad, and updating the iOS, is a different story, and I have the emotional scars to prove it. Every time there was an update, or a teacher wanted another app added to the iPad, each device had to be physically handled on an individual basis to do the updates. Not ideal when we’re thinking about the manpower and time required to do this. (If there is a management system available that I am unaware of, then please do let me know!)

Advantage: CHROMEBOOK 


IPads are intended as a personal device. If every student has their own iPad, then this argument is moot. However, at my school, iPads are a shared device. We have carts with iPads on them that must serve multiple classes at multiple grade levels. The difficulties encountered with this are numerous. Students are constantly leaving an account signed in that causes conflicts with another student’s account. Students have to worry that a work in progress might not be there the next time they go to work on it. 

Chromebooks, on the other hand, are designed to be shared devices and they eliminate the conflicts that occur when a student forgets to log off. A student’s preferred Chrome browser setup automatically appears when they log on, and all traces of that student are removed when they turn off the device. This is a huge win for Chromebooks for me. 

Advantage: CHROMEBOOK 


The sheer number of apps available for iPads is staggering (and sometimes overwhelming!). Chromebooks have traditionally been limited to apps that can run on a browser, but more and more software companies are developing Chromebook friendly versions of apps. For instance, a couple of years ago, you would be hard pressed to find a browser-friendly video editing tool. Now there are several. 

Advantage: NONE 


While many Chromebooks now have reversible cameras, I have yet to encounter a Chromebook that is as easy to use as a video camera as an iPad. For quick content creation, using sophisticated apps, the iPad wins in this department. Additionally, there is no version available for Chromebooks of the highly technical Creative Cloud software by Adobe, which includes Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Premiere Pro. There are iPad, apps, however, which, although limited in their scope, can provide a starting point for this software suite. 

Advantage: iPAD 


An iPad, by its nature, is a touch screen environment. Chromebooks are not, which can add accessibility issues, especially for young students not accustomed to using a mouse or trackpad. However, more Chromebooks are being developed that have touch screen capabilities, which could lead to the Chromebook catching up in this department. 

Advantage: iPAD 

So with that, you’ve heard all the arguments. I’ll leave it up to you to decide. Leave me a comment to let me know where you stand! 

Oh, and full disclosure from me: I wrote this blog post on my desktop computer, with my Apple Pencil-annotated articles open in OneNote on my iPad beside me. I created the illustrations below (my terrible first attempt at sketchnoting that left me with a terribly kinked neck!) using Adobe Draw on my iPad.

For me, the clear winner would be a combination of both, as I truly believe that both the iPad and the laptop have their place in different situations.

Update on last year’s Action Plan

As I promised last week, today I’m back with an update on my 2015-2016 Action Plan, which centred around the question “How might we restructure Communications Technology to provide more and better opportunities for personalization and project-based learning?” Although it was technically last year’s Action Plan, it was a large project of which I merely scratched the surface last year. The intention was to continue to revamping process this year, and I have made some gains in that regard.

In my final slide deck from last year, I noted four areas of focus on the “what’s next?” slide:

In some of these areas, I believe I made significant progress.

1 ) Continue to learn about Design Thinking, project-based learning, and blended learning.

Blended, by Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker

I read an excellent book, Blended, over the summer, which helped to clarify some of the language around blended learning, the various models that exist, and the importance of understanding the purpose of implementing blended learning in your situation. (Is it a sustaining innovation or a disruptive innovation??) You can also read my “review” (mostly just my favourite quotes) on my Goodreads profile here. This book will continue to serve me well as I embark on my new position next year, which has as one of its mandates to develop a blended learning framework for my school.

Dive Into Inquiry, by Trevor Mackenzie

At the EdTechTeam summit in BC in November, I was lucky enough to meet Trevor Mackenzie, author of the book Dive Into Inquiry, who gave me a copy to read. I devoured it on the plane ride home, thrilled with the possibilities that it explored about getting students to focus on their passions as a vehicle for learning. This served as a guide for me as I restructured the last four months of my course, and although I didn’t follow his formula exactly, the book provided me with some language and some structure to guide my revamping.

2) Continue to leverage my new toolbox and networks to keep learning and growing.

I continued to read blogs, both of the Cohort 21 variety and those of the wider educational community. I made regular use of Twitter to keep learning, which proved to be one of the best sources of professional reading I could have ever imagined. And I had the opportunity to present at two EdTechTeam conferences in BC, which allowed me to expand my PLN even further. Acting as a coach with Cohort 21 this year also kept me in touch with the culture of continued reflection and growth, even if I was not always completely motivated to keep up at all times. (See last week’s blog post: “On Failure” for more details about that.)

3) Redesign Unit 1 to cover more core competencies and teach process analysis skills.

This was something that I had intended to plan in more detail over the summer holidays, but it did not exactly work out that way. Summer has a way of sneaking right by us, doesn’t it? However, despite not having done a ton of advanced planning, I did manage to rework my first two units in order to cover a broader range of skills and tools.

Last year, when I taught the course for the first time, I divided it into subject-specific units: Intro to Comm Tech, Photography, Graphic Design, Videography, Audio Production, and Social Media and Marketing. The challenge, of course, is that each of these is such a vast topic that we could only cover in brief if we were to have any hope of getting through them all in a survey-type course. Students who were really interested in videography had only a month and a half to explore that area, and we could barely scratch the surface of it. This time around, I changed the focus.

Unit 1, “Fundamentals of Communications Technology,” explored the principles behind Comm Tech (what is it, anyway??), and we focused on developing fundamental skills such as care and use of equipment, file management techniques, copyright adherence, and project organization and management. We learned how to manage bookmarks and sync our Chrome browsers to become more efficient, and we explored how to use our digital SLR cameras for the most basic of photography and videography tasks. All of these skills would be fundamental going forward, regardless of what area students were interested in pursuing.

In one of my prouder moments as a teacher, I eliminated the traditional test from the course and tried for the first time a performance-based or practical test – students were simply to demonstrate for me their mastery of simple processes, and they were assessed as having “achieved mastery”, “approaching mastery”, or “not yet there”. Not surprisingly, this was much more time consuming — it took two 80 minute periods to assess the group of 19 students — but to me seemed a much fairer and more authentic way of assessing the level of students’ skills. Can they do it or not?

In Unit 2, “Adobe Creative Cloud and Design Fundamentals,” we explored basic design fundamentals such as photo composition and the principles of good design. We were introduced to a variety of Creative Cloud applications (e.g. Photoshop, InDesign, Bridge, etc.) so that students could become familiar with the interfaces and basic tools that come up in each one. Again, these skills were intended to form a baseline so that students would then be able to build upon them as they embarked on their in depth, independent studies in the areas of their choosing.

4) Curate lists of basic resources for every area of study as a starting point for student learning.

This goal shifted significantly based on the inspiration from Trevor Mackenzie’s book.

Finally, in March we began the independent units, which, based in part on Trevor’s suggested structure, I divided into two modules: Guided Inquiry and Free Inquiry.

My version of “Guided Inquiry” was probably more a hybrid of what Trevor Mackenzie calls Controlled Inquiry and Guided Inquiry.

In the Guided Inquiry module, students chose a piece of software from Creative Cloud’s suite of apps. They could choose from Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Animate, Audition, and Muse. I curated resources for each of the software programs, and over the course of about a month, students worked through the resources (mostly from the incredible range of tutorials from Adobe’s website), taking notes and completing assessments and practice activities along the way. This was based on my initial forays into personalized learning last year, which focused on just Adobe Muse and Adobe Illustrator as options for students. You can read about that here.

Throughout this Guided Inquiry process, I was in the unique position of providing support and assistance while students worked through the resources, rather than standing at the front of the class providing the actual instruction. I freely admitted to students that I was unfamiliar with some of the software, and would do my best to help troubleshoot wherever possible. But the focus was on working through challenges, and seeking help from peers who were working on the same software, rather than coming to me immediately whenever they encountered a roadblock. This was a huge step in the right direction. I was able to monitor student progress and provide feedback on the learning process, as well as provide targeted support where needed. Awesome!

Now in Progress: the Free Inquiry stage

Finally, upon completion of the Guided Inquiry, we embarked on the Free Inquiry module. This would be the chance for students to really dive deeply into their area of focus. The students’ choices for the Guided Inquiry provided the basis for their topics for the Free Inquiry. For example, if a student was interested in videography as an area of focus, then they had chosen to complete the Guided Inquiry module on Premiere Pro (video editing software).

(Here I switch to the present tense, as we’re currently right in the middle of it.)

For the Free Inquiry, there are two components:

  1. A report, in the format of their choice, which is intended to provide a medium for students to communicate the evidence of their learning for the module. Students are required to conduct additional research, explore more tutorials, and deepen their understanding of the basic principles studied in the first two units so that they can create the most effective authentic piece possible. (See component #2.)
  2. An authentic piece, by which students will demonstrate their mastery of their new skills by creating a product — whether it be a marketing plan, a website, a documentary, a YouTube channel, an ad campaign, an animation, or anything else they choose! One requirement of the authentic piece is that it have an authentic audience outside of the teacher or the class. Students needed to think deeply about how they can create something that has a connection to the outside world, and I have been so impressed by the projects that some of them are choosing to undertake. One student is developing a marketing plan and website for the clothing company that he’s just started with a friend. Another is creating a promotional video for her mother’s jewellery company. Another is planning a complete design, including signage, menus, and staff uniforms, of a restaurant her father is starting. Still others are creating a shop on Redbubble where they will produce products like t-shirts and phone cases out of their original photos.

This process has been incredible for me to be a part of. Although I certainly learned several things along the way about the need to be clearer in my expectations and instructions, I have been blown away by the quality of ideas that students are proposing for their authentic piece, and the planning that they are doing to make their ideas come to life. Each class, I meet with individual students for nearly the entire 80 minutes, asking questions, getting updates on their progress, and providing feedback, ideas, resources for them to check out. Even more so now than during the Guided Inquiry, I feel like I am bringing so much more value to students in this role as coach or facilitator than I ever could as a teacher instructing the whole group from the front of the class.


In all, I would consider this process a success. I do not want to be content with how this has gone and leave it at that – I know that I can do better. However, I do feel as though the progress I’ve made will make it easier for another teacher to take on the teaching of Comm Tech in my absence next year without having to worry about lacking some of the technical skills that are the focus of the course.

I still have some lingering How Might We questions that I can make a focus going forward. How might I be clearer in my expectations? How might I present exemplars or provide ideas without limiting students’ creativity? How might I best help those students who lack motivation, struggle with time management, or seem not to have a passion that they want to tap into for their project? And how on earth will I assess all of these projects that are so vastly different from one another??

I would love to hear any ideas that you might have about how to continue to improve this process and make it as valuable as possible for all involved.

Learning Management and the Student UX: My 2016-17 Action Plan

Last year, my action plan centred upon restructuring my Communications Technology class in order to allow students to spend more time focusing on their own areas of interest. While this is still a work in progress—so far, I’ve revamped my first two units to try to cover a broader base of basic skills—my hope is that in January we will be able to begin independent exploration of our areas of interest. This is a big project for me and is likely to take up most of my attention this year, as I figure out along with the students how to best track and monitor their progress, support them by providing resources and small group instruction, and manage the logistics of 19 students each doing their own thing.

In the meantime, however, I’ve begun to think about how I could begin work on a second action plan—one on a slightly smaller scope, to give me a new area to focus on as well. Although I was saddened to miss the second F2F session at the York School and the design thinking process that everyone else had the chance to engage in, I have been giving a lot of thought to another problem that I could tackle in my practice. I keep coming back to the idea of the user experience (UX) in my course management software. At The Country Day School, a few years ago we moved from (the very expensive!) Blackboard LMS to (the very free!) Google Sites as a learning management platform.

The shift created quite the bumpy ride for both teachers and students. Some of the challenges included the following:

  • Teachers had to learn a completely new system for communicating digitally with students, and the platform was neither very user friendly nor intuitive to learn;
  • Although we created a basic template for teachers to use to ensure some consistency across teachers’ sites, the varied levels of comfort with the software meant that some sites were far more easy to navigate and use;
  • Students had to learn how to navigate this new platform, and the customizability of Sites meant that, despite using the same template as a starting point, every teacher set up their site differently.
  • Shortly after we introduced the new system, Google Classroom came out. Many teachers began using this platform in addition to/instead of Sites, which led to confusion for students about where to go and how to work with both platforms.

There are so many great tools available for managing resources and communicating digitally with students. With so many options out there, how do we know which to use and how to use them effectively?

To add another layer of challenge, we originally set up all of the school sites according to a single naming convention, so that it would be simpler for admin to gain access to and navigate to any site. Now, as the new Google Sites has come out, the user-friendliness of its new interface means that teachers will likely want to switch to that. However, the new Sites live within Drive, and making the switch to that will complicate things further. Not only will teachers need to learn yet another piece of software (albeit one that is much more user-friendly!) to make and manage their classroom resources, how will we ensure consistency among teachers and ease of use for students? Still other teachers are asking students to use a variety of digital portfolio products. Herein lies my HMW question:

My 2016-2017 Action Plan question: How might we manage and improve the student user experience with teacher resources and learning management software?

I know it doesn’t have much of a ring to it, but in the world of digital design, the user experience is king: Can your customers quickly and effortlessly find the information they are looking for? Does the design work intuitively?

Here’s a link to a great article by Design Shack outlining the importance of UX: Why does user experience matter?

The essential components of the user experience, according to Design Shack.

“UX is the experience, emotion, intuition and connection a user feels when using a site or product.”

Do our students feel frustrated when navigating their class sites? Do they intuitively know how to interact with it or does it require concerted effort? And will they actually use them if they are difficult or frustrating to work with?

Thus, my action plan for 2016-2017 will centre around a) ensuring that my own class resource Site is intuitive and easy to work with, especially given the chaotic nature of the second half of my course and the need to have resources that are easy to find, and b) trying to develop a strategy for all teachers to improve the UX of their sites.

I’d love to hear what your schools are doing in terms of learning management software and the requirements and/or best practices for teachers in terms of the setup of their digital spaces. Please share!

“You didn’t test out of any skills.”

This week, I had the chance to work with the grade 7 French teacher, helping her get her classes set up on Duolingo, a web-based program that allows students to work through language lessons at their own pace. The teacher dashboard allows you to create classes, and students join the class with a six-digit code. The teacher can then track students’ work through the lessons, set certain lessons for homework, or challenge students to gain a certain amount of “xp” to “level up”, much like in a video game. Duolingo also has a mobile app, and is available in many languages, making it a neat way for anyone to start to learn a language on the go.

As our school begins to focus on one element of our new strategic plan, which is to “support, know and inspire all students”, a program such as this one can be an opportunity to offer instruction at the students’ area of need. Students who enter grade 7 with minimal French experience can work at the basic level to catch up with their peers, and students who have come to us from a French immersion or extended French program can challenge themselves beyond what the teacher might be able to do within a regular classroom. Enrichment and support, all within a fun package that will engage students and will allow the teacher to spend additional one-on-one time with students: what more can you ask for in a blended learning environment? (Side note: I have not spent enough time with Duolingo to evaluate its effectiveness as a learning program, and its focus on translation as a learning tool has me slightly wary, but the level of engagement of students in the activities it offers seems to point to it as a valuable addition to a language program. But I digress.)

Once we got students all set up with their accounts, they had the option of starting from the basics, or completing a placement test to possibly “level out” of certain basic lessons. Because most of these students have been learning French for several years already, we asked them to begin with the placement test.

Sensing the instant anxiety that arose in the room upon the mention of the word “test”, we quickly assured students that the point of this test was not to evaluate them in any negative way, but to ensure that they would be working at lessons that are at the right level for them. We thought that would be enough. But, boy, were we wrong!

Of course, taking a language test on a computer is going to have its drawbacks. Although a student might know how to say “goodbye” in French, if they make a spelling error on a simple question like this, it is marked wrong. No big deal, right? It’s just a placement test. It would simply mean that you’d have to review the lesson on this topic again, which is only going to help you with accuracy in the long run, right? However, we had no idea how emotionally fraught this experience of being marked “wrong” would be for students!

Upon students beginning the placement test, we immediately began to hear a chorus of cries of “What? I knew that!” and “It marked it wrong but I just forgot one letter/accent/word” etc. We heard students trying to get help from their peers and us, crying out, “how do you say [x] in French??” The desperation in their voices and on their faces was obvious. At the end of the test, almost every student received this message from the program: “You didn’t test out of any skills.” And at this point, the students were beside themselves.

"You did not test out of any skills." These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

“You did not test out of any skills.” These simple words seemed to be the worst possible news to students.

We tried to reassure them. It was no use. This experience made it abundantly clear that these 7th grade students have become so entirely convinced that the results of a test defines who they are and what they are worth. How has it come to this?

How has our education system so skewered what students understand assessments such as this one to be? How might we begin to shift that notion through our practice?

Although I’m not sure it would have helped at this point, a comparison to video games might be in order. I used to be a bit of a gamer myself. My university years, believe it or not, were shaped in part by a somewhat unhealthy addition to the MMORPG World of Warcraft.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

Video games can, I believe, present a much more healthy version of failure than tests in school can.

In World of Warcraft, a player would never dream of attempting a Level 60 quest with a character who was only at level 20. She simply would not have the skills and background necessary to be successful. That is certainly not to say that failure is frowned upon in the game, however. Any player, in order to level up, will attempt quests and challenges that are perhaps a little bit beyond his skill level, and he will be handsomely rewarded with additional XP as a token of that challenge. Every time his character dies in the course of one of these challenges, he will modify his strategy: maybe he’ll try a different approach, maybe he’ll attempt the challenge with a friend who can support the quest, or perhaps he’ll get a bit more XP at a lower level in order to ensure greater success moving forward.

Failure (or death), in a video game, is viewed as a learning opportunity – a chance to start over, to try again with different strategy. In a placement test, of all things, this should be even more so.

A key element of design thinking process is to “fail early and fail often”. How might we embrace this idea of failure as a learning tool rather than as the end of the road? How might we adapt our practice to make regular failure par for the course?

How might we encourage students to embrace the mindset that failure is truly a “first attempt in learning”? And do our teaching and assessment practices actually reflect this? 

What Olympic diving judging has to do with grading in schools

Sometime in mid-July, I finally finished reading Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators, which had been recommended to me by several Cohort 21 members as a starting point for re-imagining my classroom. While I planned to write a full review of the book, Garth beat me to it (see his review here). Instead, I began copying my favourite quotes from the book into my Goodreads account, and doing so helped remind me of several of the main reasons I had wanted to redesign my Comm Tech course in the first place.

This quote in particular stuck out to me:

“Here again, we see a strong emphasis on collaboration (versus individual achievement); multidisciplinary learning (versus specialization); an emphasis on creating things and student empowerment (versus passively consuming knowledge); encouragement of intellectual risk-taking and trial and error (versus risk avoidance); and finally, a strong emphasis on intrinsic (versus extrinsic) motivation, with the absence of grades and the faculty’s focus on encouraging students to pursue their passions.” (184)

I’ve also been following Starr Sackstein on Twitter (@mssackstein) who is a big proponent of removing grades from the assessment question, so I’ve been thinking about that possibility in my classroom. See her TedX talk here:

I don’t know if I’m quite ready to go grade-less, but I do know that the way I hope to structure my class this year will make the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ scoring system or rubric next to impossible. How will I account for student risk-taking in my grading, in order to encourage students to take risks without the fear of being penalized by failure?

We are in the midst of the Rio 2016 Olympic games, and while I’m not an avid Olympics watcher, my boyfriend likes to have them on, regardless of what sport is on. Thus, this weekend we ended up watching a few hours of women’s 3 meter diving. Knowing nothing about diving, I was curious about how the scores were calculated, and what the degree of difficulty had to do with the score that the diver was awarded. As it turns out (and maybe I’m the only person in the world who didn’t know this!), the three median scores are added together and multiplied by the degree of difficulty, so a higher difficulty rating will allow for a higher possible final score.

A male diver performs a reverse tuck from 3-meter springboard

A male diver performs a reverse tuck from 3-meter springboard

Then, as I copied out Wagner’s quote about risk-taking versus risk avoidance, my mind returned to the world of Olympic diving. The bigger the risk divers take, the higher possible score they can achieve. Even if they are not able to perform as perfectly in a difficult dive as they would have in a simpler, less risky dive, they can still be successful as the scoring system rewards risk-taking. I wondered if there was any sort of way to do something similar when it comes to grading in my class. Could I work with the students to assign a “difficulty rating” to certain differentiated or individualized tasks, so that if a student attempts a more challenging task with a higher possibility of failure, they can still somehow be rewarded for the risk-taking in their grade? Can the work students do as part of the process contribute to their final grade, even if the final result would otherwise be considered a failure?

Should students, like divers, be rewarded for attempting a higher "level of difficulty" in their graded tasks?

Should students, like divers, be rewarded for attempting a higher “level of difficulty” in their graded tasks?

Has anyone ever attempted something like this? What might it look like, exactly? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts.


A Blended Learning meta-exploration

Distraught at the idea that the Cohort 21 F2F on April 22 represented the official end of the year for this incredible professional development experience, I signed up for an online AQ course on Technology Integration with Queen’s University which began this month. I figured it would be a natural follow up to the growth I’ve already done this year, and would help me round out the spring term with a good challenge.

Just because I've officially graduated from C21 doesn't mean the learning has to stop!

Just because I’ve officially graduated from C21 doesn’t mean the learning has to stop!

So far we’ve explored the foundations of technology integration in the classroom and just been looking at ministry-licensed software, web apps, podcasts, and e-learning. Still to come are modules on hardware, the learner, learning cultures, and program planning.

A recent task was to present information on the benefits and tools available for e-learning, so I decided to focus on blended learning specifically, as it related closely to my C21 Action Plan and my own interests.

I could have created a poster, brochure, or presentation, but, never one to want to take the easy way out, I had made it a goal that for every assignment or task, I would try to explore and employ a different web tool to present my ideas.  My original thought was to create a website to promote blended learning as a pedagogical tool, but for the size of the project, it seemed like overkill. I still wanted to do something interactive, though.

I’d heard of the idea of using the “Go to section based on answer” advanced function of Google Forms, so decided to try it in order to create an interactive exploration of blended learning.

Here’s what I came up with. Check it out and let me know how it goes!

Blended Learning form

(click the link to try out the form)


The creation of this activity required quite a bit of planning, but, like many things, advanced planning led to smooth sailing when it came to actually building the form. Here’s the planning document that I used to organize my pages before I began building:

Building the 'choose your own adventure' form was a breeze with a bit of advanced planning!

Building the ‘choose your own adventure’ form was a breeze with a bit of advanced planning.

I can envision lots of possibilities for this tool for implementing blended learning (so meta, right?!). The ability to add images, video and text could make it a fantastic option for presenting content, checking for understanding, and revisiting areas of difficulty, all without any marking involved – a fully student-led and student-centred activity!

While planning, I referenced Sylvia Duckworth’s document “How to make a ‘Choose your own adventure’ story with Google Apps”, though obviously it was a slightly different process for presenting content rather than a story.

This was a fun experiment that I really enjoyed! I will definitely be looking for content that I can present to students through this format next year in Comm Tech!


Have you tried using the “Go to section based on answer” function of Google Forms? How did you use it? Can you think of other ways that you could try using this feature in your own teaching? I’d love to hear about it!