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!

L’éternel recommencement

Wow. Il est difficile de croire que l’on est déjà en octobre, presque arrivé aux congés d’Action de grâce. Le mois de septembre s’est passé vite; c’est comme ce que l’on dit: le temps file quand on s’amuse!

Pour les enseignants et les étudiants, le mois de septembre représente toujours un nouveau départ. Tout le monde a la chance de recommencer de nouveau et de prendre des résolutions pour le nouvel an.

Les enseignants et les élèves ont tous la chance de recommencer de nouveau en semptembre.

Les enseignants et les élèves ont tous la chance de recommencer de nouveau en semptembre.

Pour moi, cette nouvelle année scolaire me semblait différente de toutes les autres. Après avoir participé à Cohort 21 l’année dernière, j’avais un sentiment d’espoir comme je ne l’avais jamais senti. Je me sentais équipée pour de nouveaux défis, et préparée d’essayer de nouvelles choses et de prendre des risques.

J’avais de grands plans de réécrire le curriculum de mon cours pendant l’été, mais je n’ai pas réussi à finir tout ce que j’avais voulu faire. La dernière semaine avant la rentrée, j’ai commencé à déplorer la fin d’été et à m’en vouloir de ne pas avoir tout fait comme planifié. Heureusement, je suis tombée sur une article sur Adobe Spark qui s’appelle “Why perfectionism is a creativity killer and how to overcome it.”

Cette citation m’a donné la relance dont j’avais besoin:

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.

Je savais que si je décidais de ne pas commencer avec les changements que j’ai voulu instituer dans mon cours, à cause du fait que tout n’était pas perfectionné, j’aurais raté à mes buts. Je ne finirai jamais à préparer et à apprendre, et je dois l’accepter. On se plaint souvent que les élèves ne veulent pas essayer des choses parce qu’ils craignent rater; il faut que les enseignants montrent l’exemple et prennent de risques aussi.  

Alors, le premier jour de classe, j’ai expliqué à mes élèves qu’on allait apprendre ensemble cette année. Le plan de l’année n’était pas fini, mais je leur ai dit qu’on allait  le finir ensemble. Et je pense que les élèves appréciaient le fait que leur enseignant admettait qu’elle ne savait pas tout.

Je suis ravie que cette année j’aurai encore la chance de prendre part à Cohort 21, cette fois dans le rôle d’entraîneur. Mes experiences l’année dernière avec Cohort 21 ont transformé mes idées, ont changé mes priorités, et m’ont fait repenser ma philosophie de l’éducation. Elles m’ont encouragé d’essayer de nouvelles choses – les choses qui me faisaient peur, comme de mettre mes pensées sur un blogue, et de présenter à un sommet Google. Ces nouvelles choses ont mené à d’autres opportunités: dans deux semaines j’irai à Vernon, en Colombie-Britannique, pour présenter quatre ateliers en français à un sommet Google! Les portes continuent à s’ouvrir pour moi, et Cohort 21 m’a donné le courage de traverser le seuil.

J’ai hâte de commencer ce voyage avec les 30+ nouveaux participants des autres écoles CIS. Bonne année à tous!

Merci à @ddoucet pour m’avoir encouragé d’écrire cet article en français. (Encore une chose qui me fait peur!)

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!

Taking the first step toward personalizing learning

Although it’s possible that I haven’t yet articulated it as such, my action plan is centred around the idea of implementing project-based and personalized learning in my Grade 11 Communications Technology class. I realized after our third face-to-face session in January that my plan of attack was a bit misguided (see “Keeping the cart behind the horse”). While revamping my entire course for this academic year would not be possible at that stage in the year, I decided to take some small steps to try out a version of personalized learning for the tail end of our unit on Graphic Design.

This year was the first time that TGJ3M was offered at CDS, and I wasn’t sure how the timing would work out. My plan was to structure it as a survey-type course, offering units in basic technology skills, photography, graphic design, video & audio production, and social media. The graphic design unit had a lot of elements, including technology instruction in Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and Muse; partway through it, the plan was to introduce the ISU – a large, self-directed project where students would use some of the tools they’d learned to create a media campaign. As most teachers quickly find out, even when they’ve taught a course more than once, the school year seems to disappear before your eyes. Before you know it, exams are looming and you’re not where you’d planned and hoped to be. Comm Tech was no different for me. We’d barely scratched the surface of InDesign and we were already getting late in the year.

How did it get so late so soon?

As frustrating as it seemed at first, it turned out that this was a gift from the Cohort21 gods, who must have known that I needed to stop thinking about my action plan in terms of next year, and do something now to implement it. I still needed to cover Muse and Illustrator, but there was no way that, in the time we had, students could learn both with enough depth to actually create something with them. Enter the personalization bit: after being introduced to the concept of the ISU, students needed to choose which program would serve them best for their end-of-year project. Muse would be for the wannabe web designers, whose media campaign would include a website, and Illustrator would be for those who wanted to create a logo as part of their campaign. We watched introductory videos for both, and then students were off to the races.

Self-Directed Learning Module

In the weeks leading up to what I came to call the Self-Directed Learning Module, I explored the extensive collections of short, simple how-to videos found on adobe.com, copying video URLs and descriptions to two separate hyperdocs (hyperdocs defined). I divided each module into three sections: Getting Started (short, basic introductory videos for the key tools for each program), Assessment for Learning (a series of videos with sample files for students to create either a logo or a website along with the videos), and Independent Learning (a section for students to seek out resources that answer their burning questions or teach them additional tools). For each video, students were to take detailed notes to look back on for reference. Each section was followed by a reflection and a learning skills self-assessment.

You can view each document here:

Adobe Illustrator Self-Directed Learning Module

Adobe Muse Self-Directed Learning Module

I knew they were long documents so I tried to make use of some of the tools in Docs to make it easier to navigate. I created bookmarks for each section and made a footer with links to each bookmark. Just recently, Docs also introduced the new “Outline” feature, which recognizes your headings and uses the grey space beside your doc to create a “smart” table of contents.

Learning skills are something that I don’t keep track of as much as I should; I had students complete a self-assessment of their learning skills three times throughout the process, and my final assessment at the conclusion of the module included my take on their work habits and learning skills. (Needless to say, students’ perceptions of how hard they’re working often differed from my own!)

Students had to reflect upon their learning skills and work habits after each section of the module. (Click the image to view the entire Self-Assessment form.)

Students had to reflect upon their learning skills and work habits after each section of the module. (Click the image to view the entire Self-Assessment form.)

The final time they completed the self-assessment, I used advanced Google Forms tools (“Go to page based on answer”) to have students provide the basic information required for a Certificate of Completion, and used the Add-on Form Publisher to automatically generate a certificate and email it to students. I liked the idea of incorporating the idea of badging into the process, and it also made it easier for me to see exactly which students had fully completed the module.

A custom, automated certificate brought in a "badging" element to the module.

A custom, automated certificate brought in a “badging” element to the module.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

One of the challenges I identified in the first step of the action plan process was that I was beginning to find it difficult to stay far enough ahead of the students to feel like the expert. Although I knew my way around Illustrator and Muse, this self-directed learning module was a perfect opportunity for me to learn along with the students. I gave myself homework, and I went through the video-watching and note-taking process just as the students did. Knowing exactly what was in the videos made me a better resource for my class – I faced some of the same difficulties they did, and my background knowledge of the software could help to fill in the blanks where the videos did not cover something. I was able to use my notes as an example for students, as I found that many of them didn’t really know how to take effective notes (I saw a lot of video summaries in place of notes).  

I was able to use my notes as an example for students; I don't know if they've ever had much explicit instruction on how to take effective notes.

I was able to use my notes as an example for students; I’m not sure if they’ve ever had much explicit instruction on how to take effective notes.

During class, I used the time to respond to student questions and go through their documents, making comments on their notes and reflections: How could you take better notes to help you remember a process more effectively? Could practicing with the software as you watch help you to retain things better? What do you do when a video doesn’t explain something thoroughly?


This process was certainly not all roses. Trying to keep students on track and using their class time effectively was a challenge. I had a hard time balancing the “independent work time” with my desire for students to act as resources for one another and try to problem-solve together (in my class, at least, this often quickly devolves into social time). I found it frustrating that despite writing what I thought were crystal-clear instructions, students seemed not to read them. I spent most of the class periods responding to questions whose answers were contained either within the document or within the videos or webpages. Part of the intent for this module was for students to recognize the vast network of resources available to them when they wanted to learn something, and my hope was that they would try to find an answer before turning to me. I’d love to hear some ideas about how to help students work towards greater independence and resilience in the face of setbacks. I want to create a culture of independence and problem-solving in my classroom next year – does anyone have any activities that I could use to start the year off on the right foot?



Despite the challenges and frustration, I believe that this was a valuable experience both for me and for my students. It was awesome to see some students embrace the freedom of working at their own pace, and I could tell that they enjoyed having the freedom to choose what to learn. I was able to spend more time supporting and facilitating individual student learning and answering questions, and less time trying to deliver content to a large group. My biggest takeaways are to keep instructions simple, and next time I might divide the three sections into three separate documents, with a clearer structure (part 1, part 2, part 3 as opposed to my three randomly-named sections). Does anyone have any other feedback or ideas for making this a more successful experience for all?

My action plan goal will remain to work towards a completely revamped course for next year with a personalized structure based on larger projects. In the meantime, however, I will take some of the lessons learned from this experience to support my students as they work on their ISUs.

Be better than you were yesterday: words to live by

Back in the groove again. It didn’t take long, did it? March Break is already a distant memory, and for me, it seemed like the benefits of the break, and the feeling of being rested and caught up, were quickly swept away with the first bell last Tuesday. That said, despite the third term busyness, I haven’t been able to get one particular thought out of my head. After my last blog post (which I wrote before passing my Google Certified Educator Level 2 exam!), I’ve been thinking about submitting a proposal to present at one of the GAFE Summits (London, ON – May 28-29).

The Summit I attended last year in Lachine, Quebec was my first real exposure to the wonder of possibilities that Google Apps provide, and that experience has really shaped me – both as a teacher, and as a learner. I had been to inspiring conferences before, but never before had the learning that I had done actually make an immediate and continued difference in my teaching. All of a sudden, I felt like I just wanted to learn more and more. I became what I thought might be annoyingly preachy about the benefits of using Google Docs over the expensive and proprietary Word or Pages (“One version rather than multiple files that you email back and forth to yourself!” “No more lost USB keys!” “Gone are the days of not being able to open up other people’s’ files because you don’t have the software!”).

"Revision history" according to Microsoft Word.

“Revision history” according to Microsoft Word.

I and my colleague Melissa began the transition of moving all of our library resources to Google Docs, and we started making Google Tools an integral part of the research process workflow that we would teach to students.

Do you know the power of the force "Make-a-copy" in Google Docs? A game-changer when you're providing templates for students!

Do you know the power of the force “Make-a-copy” in Google Docs? A game-changer when you’re providing templates for students!


And the learning continues. In addition to achieving Level 2 in the certification process, over the Break I committed to eliminating Microsoft Outlook as my email client and jumping in to Gmail with both feet, even for my work email. I asked IT to forward all of my email to my school-provided Google account, I researched inbox management strategies, and I got to Inbox Zero. I have been working on fine-tuning my workflow to ensure that my email does not get out of control like it once did. With filters, labels, and multiple inboxes, I am already seeing a big difference in how I interact with the massive amounts of email that we tend to receive on a daily basis.

In any case, I am doubtful that I need to continue to convince you that I am wholly convinced about the merits of Google Apps for Education. (I’m sure that I will write another blog post or two about other tools that I love!) But when Leslie suggested in a comment on my last post that I apply to present at a Google Summit, I was stoked. It is a professional goal of mine to do something like that, and to be able to provide even one person with the same spark that was lit in me last year would be an incredible experience.

As I worked through possible topic ideas, however, doubts began to creep in. Who am I to think that I could possibly be good enough to present at a Summit?! I’d heard of colleagues leaving a session mumbling about how it wasn’t that great, or how they wished they’d attended a different session – what if that was MY session they were leaving? Or, even worse, what if nobody came at all? Could I fill a full hour with inspiring demonstrations and ideas? Could I answer people’s questions sufficiently? And, ridiculously, what would I even write in my bio?

I’m not writing this to get assurances about my worth or value in the comments – please don’t provide anything of the sort! I’m just exploring the sneaky nature of our self-doubt, which I know our students face daily as well. If we want to be learners along with our students, we need to be willing to put ourselves out there and be vulnerable as well. If we want to improve, we need to do things that are hard! Despite the awkward grammatical structure of this quote, it is one that I think is appropriate here:


Although this quote is all over the internet, I couldn’t find the original source. Image from Pixabay.

Here’s where I would love to hear your comments, though. Below are a couple of possibilities I’m weighing for a presentation proposal. I’d love some feedback. Would sessions such as these interest you? Why or why not? Could I word these summaries more effectively? Can you think of ways in which I could improve the overall appeal of the sessions?

Possibility #1: Growing Success with Google Forms: Improving assessment and the feedback cycle

Ontario’s Growing Success document/philosophy emphasizes descriptive feedback of student achievement and regular and ongoing tracking of learning skills and habits, but it can be overwhelming to keep up with this in practice. Do you find it difficult to provide sufficient and timely descriptive feedback to students? Do you find yourself scribbling notes about learning skills in this notebook, on this Post-it, and on that random sheet of paper? How do you keep yourself organized and your students engaged in the feedback cycle?
Come to this session to explore the use of Forms and Add-Ons to help to streamline your assessment and evaluation practices. Learn how to create a simple form to track learning skills and work habits and how to apply filters in Sheets to sort your data. See how to use AutoCrat or Form Publisher to populate a custom rubric with achievement levels and your feedback. Explore how DocAppender can help you to create a single location for a students’ assessment so that you can create a two-way feedback loop.

Possibility #2 (far less developed): Personalizing Learning with Hyperdocs

With an increasing emphasis on personalized learning in schools, explore how you can enable your students to pursue their own interests and learn at their own pace using Google Apps. I will share my recent experience with implementing a self-directed learning module in my classroom, making the most of existing online tutorials, the power of hyperlinks and bookmarks, and the feedback/conversation tools in Google Docs to allow students to take charge of their own learning experience.

If you’ve been to a Google Summit, were there areas you thought were lacking? What would be the topic of the presentation that you’d like to see?

Getting Geeky with Google

The winter term at school has been a crazy one. Between teaching, grading, reports, coaching, and all of the other things that tend to accumulate as the year goes on, I was literally counting the seconds until my March Break began. And no, I was not headed off to some warm, exotic destination to sip piña coladas on a beach. Nope, I was staying close to home with my pooches, catching up on some much-needed sleep, and tackling some long-overdue projects at home. One item on my massive To Do list is to write a blog post and to reflect on my action plan so far. Another is to complete Level 2 of the Google Educator program. And this is what brings me here now.

My March Break has consisted of lots of quality walks with the dogs, including this one. Despite not going somewhere tropical for the break, there's lots to appreciate about staying home and getting stuff done!

My March Break has consisted of lots of quality walks with the dogs, including this one, this morning. Despite not going somewhere tropical for the break, there’s a lot to appreciate about staying home and getting stuff done!


I’ve spent the past couple of mornings working through the Google Educator Level 2 lessons. My boyfriend thinks I’m crazy for spending my days off doing “school work”, but I love learning new things, and it’s a bonus if the things I’m learning can help me to improve my teaching practice or my efficiency in my work life. I truly hope that my desire to continue learning every day will also inspire my students (or even just one of them!) to recognize the importance of being a lifelong learner, and to realize that learning for its own sake– and not for getting “A’s”– is the key to loving the process.

I highly recommend the Google Certified Educator program to anyone who wants to improve their practice. Level 1 I found quite simple, but even though I was already a fairly accomplished user of GAFE (Google Apps for Education) tools, I certainly learned a few new things. The program is consistently focused not just on learning how to use tools effectively, but how to use them in order to improve your pedagogy and your efficiency. The lessons underline the collaborative and interactive possibilities with many of the tools, and they recognize the importance of helping educators stay organized and on top of their grading and feedback cycles.

Here are a few of the key ideas that I’ve gleaned from the Level 2 training:

Add-ons for Google Docs, Sheets, and Forms:

  • Thanks to the genius of Leslie McBeth’s GAFE summit presentations, I’d already been introduced to the world of Add-ons and how they can make the feedback cycle more authentic, timely, and efficient. I’ve been using DocAppender (a Forms add-on) in my class this year, and every student has a Doc that contains all of their feedback, from general observations to test scores, from peer assessments to full rubrics. It changed my life and allowed me to give FAR more feedback than I’d ever been able to provide to students, and it keeps it all in one place for students.
  • There are so many more add-ons available than I’ll ever be able to master. But I’ve explored a few of them, and here are some of my favourites: autoCrat (for making custom Docs or PDFs out of form responses), Flubaroo (for auto-grading quizzes), Yet Another Mail Merge (for creating custom replies for technology booking requests sent to the library), Form Notifications (for getting notified every time a form is submitted), and FormPublisher (similar to autoCrat). Staying on top of the add-ons and extensions available and how to use them could be a full-time job, but I’m keeping it as a priority for my professional development time, as they’ve probably made the biggest difference in my teaching, assessment, and workflow than any other tool I’ve encountered.

The endless possibilities for personalizing learning (a huge component of my action plan) through Google tools:

  • Docs: creating  interactive documents for guiding students on a personalized learning journey; using Tables of Contents, Bookmarks, and internal and external hyperlinks to help students navigate the Doc.
  • Forms: self-assessment, peer-assessment, and teacher-assessment forms; using forms for quick understanding checks (autograded using Flubaroo); using “choose your own adventure” features on Forms to help ensure understanding; using Forms to auto-fill and customize rubrics using Form Publisher or autoCrat add-ons.
  • YouTube: using annotations and cards to make my flipped lesson videos more interactive and useful for all learners.
  • Sites & Blogs: using Sites and/or blogs to create digital portfolios for students to display, reflect on, and share their learning journey throughout the year.

The continuous learning that I need to engage in:

The lessons on using Google Sheets for data analysis were way above my level of comprehension. Although they linked to pages with explanations, even those were too complex for my non-mathematical brain to understand. I’ve added a course on using Google Sheets to my lynda.com playlist so that I can continue to learn and challenge myself to understand the tool more thoroughly and leverage it more effectively for my data tracking.

"All this learning is hard work! I thought we were on vacation!"

“All this learning is hard work! I thought we were on vacation!”

In all, working through this training has reminded me once again of the importance of staying current with technology to ensure that a) I’m providing my students with the best and most personalized learning experience possible, b) I’m giving effective and timely feedback, and c) I’m modeling the value of self-directed and passion-based learning. There are SO many amazing tools available to us, and taking the time to learn about them, practice them, and try them out in my practice is so fun and rewarding.

And reading Leslie’s recent blog posts about her experiences with the Google Certified Innovator program have helped me to set my next goals for my own professional development! Happy March Break, everyone! I hope you’re finding it restful and re-energizing – I know that I am!