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Monday, November 21, 2011

Google Earth Project - Part 1

Reflection on my own teaching and students' learning in my technology class...

screen shot from my Google Earth files
Our 3rd graders are embarking upon a rather ambitious project this year that will integrate nicely with their curriculum while simultaneously providing an opportunity to learn a large number of technical skills. Each year, students in 3rd grade study the Nisqually Watershed (visit their teachers' website here):
Third graders will explore a yearlong social studies and science theme centered on the Nisqually River, which flows from the Nisqually glacier high on Mt. Rainier to Puget Sound. Along the way the river travels through a variety of settings, including a national park, rural farming communities, a Native American reservation, hydroelectric generation facilities, a military base, and a national wildlife refuge. Most of our field trips will focus on this theme, as we seek to understand the interactions inherent in this watershed, and how they represent those in the larger world.
The kids have already gone on three of their field trips this year, to Mount Rainier,  Pack Forest, and just two weeks ago they planted 135 seedling trees at Wilcox Farms as part of the Ohop Valley Restoration project. It's an amazing year of discovery and journeys to some of our local treasures in the Pacific Northwest. The kids take their science journals on these trips, or write in them after they return, and record observations and reflections.

This year, we are going to create narrated tours in Google Earth that follow our path down the watershed, from the top of Mount Rainier to Puget Sound. My goal is that each student will put in all the placemarks for each location, include some information from their science journal to describe the area and its relation to the watershed, collect all the locations in a folder, and by the end of the year, create a full, flying tour with recorded narration. That's a lot to accomplish, but I am certain they're up for it.

So, I began by trying to break down the project into all the small skills necessary to accomplish the larger tasks throughout the year. I spent some time watching the GE tutorials on creating tours and adding placemarks, and I created the beginnings of my own project so I could see each step along the way to creating a full-fledged Google Earth tour. As I've mentioned before, trying to see this from my students' point of view is essential, because it is far too easy for me to make assumptions about what they know and what they don't know. "Go explore in Google Earth," sounds fun, but there are some fundamental skills the kids need to be able to do that. So I planned to start in my typical fashion with a review of some essential vocabulary (menu, toolbar, etc.), and then I wanted to look at the GE interface together just to see what was there and how the parts were organized. I am always hopeful that these early "let's get acquainted with the application" sessions will encourage them to jump into new things down the road with confidence because we know there's no better way to learn how something works than to simply try it. "Click all the buttons!" I tell them. "Find out what they do!" As I continued my planning, the list of skills grew rapidly. And then I realized I missed one. There was something we really needed to try first before we could really get going...

Using a mouse.

We have spent some time learning our way around the new trackpads on our laptops, and for some students this is the preferred method of navigation. We pulled out the super-fancy-four-button mice, however, to get a concrete feel for what "right-click" means (it comes up a lot in the video tutorials), and to see how the mouse functions differently in a program that can utilize all its features. We'll learn how to right-click on the trackpad, too, and the students will use that skill in other programs (for the rest of their lives), but for the most part, none of them had ever actually done this on purpose. If that weird window/menu/thing popped up in the past, it was usually an accident. And sometimes they couldn't get it to go away. :)

Before "explore Google Earth" phase began, with laptop lids closed, I had the kids simply practice a left-click, right-click, and scroll. They have small minute to concentrate just on the mouse and get a feel for it was useful. Up to this point, they were pretty convinced we were actually using three-button mice until I asked the kids to push down on the scroll wheel. With gasps of excitement (man, I love 8- and 9-year olds) they discovered the 4th hidden button! We made a list on the board: left-click selects, right-click pops up a useful menu, scrolling in Google Earth zooms in and out, and pushing that scroll button down while we move the mouse let's us actually TILT the earth! We then launched Google Earth to just fly around and see what all the buttons, particularly that multi-functional scroll wheel, could do...zooming underwater and wielding the power to tilt the earth was pretty awesome, and the kids needed time to explore and just play around to get used to it.

During this free-for-all exploration, many tried to find their house or neighborhood, and some visited large cities or monuments they had studied in second grade (breaking it down even further, embedded in this exploration are the skills of keyboarding and correct spelling to find what you're looking for--can't forget that takes time!). Many students quickly learned that when your playground is the whole earth, searching needs to be fairly specific. Your address isn't going to yield the proper results if you don't include your city, state, or even country. Could there be a 405 Riverside Drive somewhere else in the world? Hmmm....

Reading over this, it all seems sort of simplistic. Using a mouse? Really? Am I breaking it down too far? I wonder. But these are the skills my students are actually learning, or need to feel confident about going forward, and they are the details I need to consider as their teacher. How much time will it take? Will we actually be able to do this? How can I manage time and frustration when things don't just happen easily? Creating a tour means following some concrete steps, and we will learn those steps, but slowing down to grasp the fundamentals of using Google Earth with a 4-button mouse was a necessary exercise. Once the kids took some time to explore and familiarize themselves with the fancy mouse, we all searched for "Nisqually Glacier" together and watched as we "flew" to the top of Mount Rainier.

We managed to get through the process of creating a folder to save our placemarks, and we successfully marked the first spot at the top of the mountain at the angle and view each of us liked.  All this took the rest of the class period...almost an hour. Yikes. But you know what? The first day they came in and had to learn how to log into Google Apps, THAT took the whole hour (and they have some pretty complicated passwords, let me tell you). Today, these same third graders can login in one minute. With practice, everything gets easier and more efficient. And the kids who pick up the skills quickly are more than willing to be coaches to their fellow students, and in this instance, a few even moved onto adding the details from their science journals without needing instruction to do so. They could figure it out on their own. It felt chaotic at times, highly structured at others, and self-paced when it could be.

Overall, it was a great first day of a new project.

I can't wait to see how it all turns out. As I created my own .kmz file with the first three locations marked on the map, I zoomed and tilted to get just the right angle where I could visually see the ENTIRE path the students will follow this year. I have visited these locations in person before, but I had never really processed for myself where they were in relation to each other. In Google Earth, the Nisqually watershed became a real thing, not just an abstract idea or concept. I hope our students will get to experience that aha! moment as well.

As I reflect on my teaching of these basic skills and wonder whether or not it was a good use of our time, I think back to other lessons where I didn't bother with the smaller pieces of instruction. Many times in the past, I just expected that the kids understood what I wanted them to do, or that they would intuitively know how. These lessons always turned out to be endlessly frustrating for me, and for the kids, because they didn't feel well-planned or executed. Now, I know that next week when we return to Google Earth, I will be able to do a quick 2-minute review of how the mouse works and not need to spend any more time on it. We will go back to the beginning of the project and get to the same spot in 5 minutes it took us an hour to reach last week. I do feel like laying these foundational skills is important, because I see what the students will be able to do as they continue their education here.

In the Lower School, technology instruction is very skills-based in our early grades. By 4th grade, however, as we continue more project-based instruction, not as much time is spent on reviewing the skills, and things tend to move more quickly because the kids already have that solid foundation. This is not to say that I don't still review skills with the upper elementary students, but they already know most of the answers, so it's their chance to show me what they remember, and perhaps learn and/or teach a new method to get to the same results. I've seen remarkable progress in the last few years, so I am hopeful that this method is working.

To be continued...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Videos in Google Sites!

Google continues to improve upon the Apps for Education platform, and I was pleasantly surprised to find new options for videos today. YAHOO! Inserting videos in a site used to be limited to just YouTube or Google Videos. Not helpful when YouTube is blocked at school...  It's also been challenging for the last several years to be the only person on campus hosting student videos online because all files flow through me, my computer, and my account. Ugh. Google Docs provides us with space to store such projects, but now they've gone one further and will let us publish them via Sites. Because Sites can be shared and have multiple editors, all the students will be able to PUBLISH THEIR OWN VIDEOS! I'm so excited I can hardly stand it.

Today our 7th graders finished their 2nd video project of the five they will work on in science class this year. Traditionally, we have had the kids compress their projects to a reasonable size and format, then turn them in via a dropbox on the server. This still works just fine, but a new option has arrived! Actually, several options already exist, but we've had Google Apps less than a year and we're still uncovering great things all the time. Today, I pulled the videos out of the drop box only to discover I needed to compress them further because I had the students save them at a size too large for reasonable web streaming. Once I did that, I thought I might create a web page on my site that would just be a File Cabinet to store them all so students could look at and review each other's work if they wanted to. As I went to do that, I created just a plain new Web Page and tried out the Insert > Video function to see if I could insert a .m4v file straight into the page. The options now include the new and mysterious "Google Docs Video." 
Options for inserting video into Google Sites

So I paused momentarily to upload a video file to Google Docs, then went back to my site and tried to insert it. This is just a screen shot, not the actual video...
an inserted Google Docs video!

It's killing me how easy this is. Now, I've only tested it within my own account where I have ownership and control over all the content. Next, I'll need to try inserting a video in MY Google Docs to a site that is owned by others, but shared with me. If this is to be a useful and efficient way for students to share their videos, I need to make sure it works in the collaborative environments Google Apps affords. I also need to test it on a student machine that doesn't have access around the firewall to make sure things aren't blocked from view. My hopes are high. Stay tuned, because if this works, our students can now post their own original videos to shared sites as a way of turning in their finished project. If someone was in my office with me right now I'd be whooping, hollering and high-fiving (it's happened before). Aside from the frog my kids and I found in our garage this morning, this is THE best discovery of my week.

UPDATE: I put all of the student videos on a single webpage, then logged in as another student from a school laptop to test things out. I quickly discovered that permissions and sharing had to be adjusted in several places. First, and most obviously, my site needed to be shared. It's nothing spectacular...just a place where I test things out, so I set it to be shared with everyone at Charles Wright Academy with the link. Next, as I visited the site as a student, I was able to see the page with all the videos, but when I clicked a video, it said I didn't have permission to watch it. Duh! I forgot that these uploaded files were now all MINE and private only to me. So I went back into my docs and shared all of them in the same manner as my site (people at CWA with the link). If you'd like to check it out, click here. It will prompt you to log into Tarrier Apps if you're not already in there.

No problems with the firewall.  Sweet!

Parts of my test are complete and I now know a teacher could successfully share student work in this manner. The next part of the test, however, is to see if students could post their videos onto a shared site and set all the permissions correctly. I'm going to experiment some more with the File Cabinet as well, because I think it might provide easier access to the video files in a cleaner format.

To be continued...