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Jennifer Roland is a long-time ed tech writer, working on various ISTE publications for 12 years before striking out on her own. Her work has appeared in Ed Tech: Focus on K-12, NPR-affiliate KQED's education blog MindShift, and edCetera. Jennifer's first book, The Best of Learning & Leading with Technology, was published by ISTE in 2009. Her second book, Pacific Northwest Writers: Perspectives on Writing, was published in 2015 by Gladeye Press. Jennifer is a member of the Education Writers Association. Follow her posts about edtech at edtechcopywriter.com.

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Ed Tech Writer
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Jennifer Roland

Ed Tech Review: Are Learning Management Systems (LMS) Really Useful?

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Most teachers have heard every version of "My dog ate my homework" possible. Whether it's an incomplete assignment, a forgotten permission slip, or a missed project due date, it can be frustrating when students miss deadlines. Luckily, learning management systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, can help teachers, students, and parents stay organized and on track all year long.

What Is It?

Also referred to as a learning management system (LMS), Blackboard and other platforms, such as Canvas, Google Classroom, and Schoology, can help manage assignments, foster collaboration, and engage home-school communication. Teachers can enter assignments, due dates, and other important information into the LMS at the beginning of the school year, and then post homework-help work sheets and permission slips for parents throughout the year. It can even be used for collaboration or to organize students' completed work. In other words, a teacher's classroom resources can all be found in one central location.

Getting started with a learning management system can seem daunting, but with some of these platforms, it's a relatively easy process. Google Classroom is free, so all you need is a few minutes to sign up using a Google or G Suite for Education account and create your class. Schoology offers a free Basic package—just sign up!—as well as an Enterprise package. You'll have to talk to a representative to get a price quote for Canvas (which includes a one-time implementation fee and an annual fee) and Blackboard—though quite a few people have looked into finding an estimate on the latter. Additionally, Schoology and Blackboard offer in-person demonstrations to help you understand how they can be implemented in your classroom.

How You Can Use an LMS

Rather than tracking assignments, important notices, and grades across multiple platforms and media, an LMS like Blackboard allows teachers to maintain everything within the system. You can input due dates, assignments, parent letters, and forms, and less instructional time will be spent managing these documents. The LMS is also accessible any time, anywhere, making it impossible to forget your take-home folder in your classroom.

An LMS is also a great tool for creating and distributing quizzes and tests. Many systems can grade submissions automatically, significantly cutting down on the time that teachers spend with a red pen in hand. Tests can even be timed, allowing teachers to determine the areas where students are struggling or excelling.

And they're not just for tests and quizzes. Kathleen DeKalb, a business education instructor at Fort Plain Jr./Sr. High School in Fort Plain, New York, uses Blackboard for the "World without Oil" lesson in her business economics class. First, students log on, watch a video, and browse a few educational sites that DeKalb posts. Then they share what they've learned on a discussion board. Not only does this positively influence learning, but students are able to prepare for the future. "It's as if they're in college taking an online course," DeKalb said. "Our goal is to prepare them for work or college because one of the biggest hurdles in college is getting through the technology portion of it."

Pitfalls to Avoid

One reviewer on G2 Crowd says that "the Blackboard interface seems a little outdated, making it hard for teachers to understand." The same reviewer recommends that instructors take a workshop on all that Blackboard can offer. "While its full potential can be difficult to see, the benefits are astounding once fully known." Canvas users noted that the Gradebook functionality could improve, while Schoology users wish the system was a bit more streamlined when it comes to uploading lesson plans or connecting with parents.

Any LMS is an intensive, technology-based system that will require a certain level of technology access and knowledge to be successful. Designate a team or staff member to learn the ins and outs of the system you choose, and to offer support to teachers and students. Make sure teachers look into online trainings and read targeted articles on the systems' blogs to stay current on how to best use the tools.

Learning management systems can seem like a hassle to implement and master but they are worth the time investment. In the end, they can help keep teachers, parents, and students engaged and on the same page, making life in the classroom a little easier for everyone involved.

How to Use STEM Teaching Tools in Your Classroom

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You've probably heard a lot about the importance of getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) classes. STEM careers are increasing, and providing students with experience through STEM teaching tools and activities can help foster interest in these in-demand (and well-paying!) careers. STEM activities also adhere to the growth of maker culture, which teaches students that they can always find ways to improve their world through innovation. Here are a few techniques and activities that will keep your class motivated and engaged.

Making STEM Fun

It's up to you to show your students that not all STEM activities require sitting in silence and typing commands on a keyboard. To pique their interests, have your students work on an activity that blends hands-on and computer-based learning, such as Lego Mindstorms. A single classroom kit allows students to design, build, and control a variety of robots, and comes with everything you need to start teaching STEM and computer science in a fun and exciting way—Legos, sensors, motors, and a control brick. As an additional resource, the Lego Education website contains lesson ideas and teaching materials for preschool, elementary, and middle school classes.

Regardless of what age you teach, giving your students the opportunity to participate in a robotics club or team can be beneficial. In Indiana, students can participate in a statewide robotics competition. According to the Daily Reporter, one fifth-grade teacher, who led two teams of elementary students at this year's competition, said "she loves seeing the students have a chance to be creative, showcase their skills, and make new friends." She also said she's seen shyer students gain confidence after joining her school's robotics club. Students at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, New York, even made robot pumpkins. These kids used digital tools to design tech-modified pumpkins, dubbed "hack-o-laterns," and they learned how to program sensors, lights, motors, and buzzers. The school took advantage of open-source and low-cost tools, such as Arduino boards, to ensure that participants had access to powerful (but affordable) tools.

Integrating STEM into Other Subjects

For those students who aren't excited by STEM activities, try integrating activities that are influenced by these fields into their other subjects. Partner with language arts, social studies, and art teachers to design projects that have a technology focus and can be accomplished in both class periods. For instance, why not partner with an English teacher and have students design a house for a character through an online tool like Floorplanner. They can use examples from their readings to explain their design decisions, capitalizing on this fun engineering activity.

You can also have your class use a coding tool like MIT's Scratch, which is easy for students at all levels to use and demonstrate their knowledge by building a simple app. For example, social studies students could write a game that teaches their peers or younger students about the historical event or movement they're studying. Language arts students might create an app that explains the main themes in the book they're reading.

Even physical education classes can take on STEM characteristics. A classroom set of fitness trackers can be used to measure students' health and wellness progress over the course of the year. The Mi Band is a relatively affordable tool ($14.99) that can be purchased for an entire class and used to count steps and measure heart rate. Students can test the effects of various physical activities on their health over time by comparing how regular exercise changes their resting heart rate and their heart rate during exertion. This brings real-world applications of math and scientific inquiry into gym class, moving us even closer to the day when teachers no longer hear, "But I'll never use math in real life!" This type of activity can also get students who don't like gym class to be motivated about exercising and making healthy choices.

Preparing students for the technology-focused world is one of the integral aspects of our jobs as educators. Integrating STEM teaching tools throughout your curriculum can show students the importance of inquiry and research, while also providing experience with creating and using STEM tools. When your students eventually enter the job force, you may find yourself being thanked for inspiring their pursuit of a career in a STEM field.

Top Ed Tech Trends for 2017

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Now that you're settled into the new year, it's a good time to start thinking of ways you can improve your classroom. With technology making huge strides every year—every month, it might seem—there are some great educational tools you can get your hands on. To help you find the tools for you and your students, here are some of 2017's top ed tech trends and what they can mean for your classroom.

Explore with Virtual Reality Tools

Virtual reality (VR) can provide your students with engaging opportunities to see things they can't see in their own backyard. There will likely be a cost to implement virtual reality into your lessons, but the benefits may be worth the price. If your school or district can swing it, Nearpod, a company that offers multiplatform educational tools for teachers, has a VR subscription service that includes more than 100 virtual field trips and lessons. Your students could visit locations like the Louvre, Hong Kong, and Egyptian pyramids—all places you can't reach in a school bus!

Joanna Beck, a middle school science teacher in Georgia, said being able to use Nearpod's VR lessons to take her students on great adventures made her feel like Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Teachers can even build their own interactive lessons; Lia Gyore, a fourth-grade teacher in California, uses the VR experience in subjects like math and reading. Pricing for this service varies based on class size and service package.

If you're a science teacher, Science Buddies also has a whole section on VR project ideas that you can access free of charge. While hands-on learning is the preferred method for scientific experimentation, using virtual and augmented reality in place of some costly experiments is a great option. You can even turn virtual reality into a fun activity by having your students create their own VR headsets using cardboard they bring in from home and a fairly wide variety of smartphones, like in this CNET tutorial.

Let Nepris Connect You with Industry Professionals

Ed tech tools can make collaborative projects easier by allowing students to share documents, notes, and information in and out of class. They also offer the opportunity to collaborate with experts in the field. Nepris is a platform that allows you to connect with an industry professional who does the kind of work your class is exploring. Your students can participate in live industry chats, learn from actual experts in specific fields, and even take part in real-world projects with experts. (I've even served as an expert for a writing session with gifted fifth graders.) These connections allow your students to receive advice on their ideas and input as they progress through the assignment you've given. As a bonus, they can see what it's really like to pursue some of the professions they might already be considering. The free basic Nepris account gives you access to one live session and one live industry chat, and the Platinum Plan is $149 annually and gives you unlimited access to live sessions and industry chats.

Make Your Own Apps

In light of the global push to bring code into students' lives, you'll probably be seeing much more programming being introduced in core subject areas. Rather than writing a paper or giving a presentation after completing a unit, you can ask your students to write the code for a game that could teach the same subject matter to a different group of students.

Students can use a free, open-source service like MIT's App Inventor to create apps that they can not only share with their peers, but the whole world. The software uses block visuals to help beginners better understand the language of coding. There are also free videos and tutorials to help you and your students use the tool, and MIT even hosts events to help train educators on the software. The end results can be pretty cool! For example, a seventh-grade science class at Deerfield Community School in New Hampshire wrote a series of apps to teach younger students about water. Sixteen-year-old Alberto Suárez created an app to showcase the poems of Manuel María for Galician Literature Day, and it's available for download on the Google Play store.

If you decide to try any of these ideas, or other educational technology, you might have to switch up your classroom design. Look for new furniture options that allow you to better group students in pods for collaboration, create open spaces when needed, and assign quiet spots for individual study—one high school in Illinois was completely renovated to ensure that the entire building was a collaborative learning space.

So, what ed tech trends are you looking forward to integrating into your classroom?

School Social Media Policy: 3 Guidelines to Follow

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Stories of professionals, educators included, being fired for things they posted on social media aren't hard to come by. Some teachers have lost their jobs from old pictures they had online and others have been let go after simply communicating with students over social media.

School social media policies vary, and what's acceptable at one school may be frowned upon at another. However, regardless of your school's policy, it's important to be careful with social media—and it's usually best to keep your professional life separate from your personal life. Here are three important guidelines to follow as you write your own personal code of social ethics.

5 Classroom Videos That Are Great Teaching Tools

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I remember a time when teachers got a little peace and quiet by rolling in a film projector to show an instructional movie. The click-clack of the film running drowned out most of the student chatter while the class watched a clip from Mr. Rogers, an explanation of photosynthesis from an educational film company, or even an inspirational movie about a family who adopted a baby kangaroo. These classroom videos gave my teachers time to get some grading done, and my friends and I loved that we got a break from lectures. The videos were usually fun—and sometimes featured comically bad acting (driver's ed scare-tactic films, anyone?)—making learning enjoyable.

Educational classroom videos have a place in modern education, too: Here are five great videos that can inform and entertain your class—most of them are available on YouTube or other streaming services.

 

How to Make Technology in Classrooms Effective and Exciting

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So, you've got a room full of technology—and a mandate to use it. What's next?

Technology in classrooms is about more than just pleasing the higher-ups who want to see you realizing value from their investment. New digital tools can help you engage students at all levels, activate multiple learning styles, and provide exciting, memorable activities. And let's face it: your students are glued to their devices all the time anyway, so you might as well take advantage of their love of tech and get them learning.

Here are some examples of how you can use technology to help you teach the core subject areas and improve your own experience as a teacher in the process.

For Storytelling

Digital storytelling tools such as inklewriter and Storybird make writing more exciting for students. They can use images and interactivity to make stories come alive, allowing students at all levels to be creative and explore different methods of retelling their favorite stories or telling some of their own. Storybird, in particular, opens storytelling up to young students who prefer to communicate with images rather than written text.

For Expression and Portability

You can also use these tools for poetry appreciation assignments, giving students a new way to experience and understand poetry (not exactly the most approachable literary form). You can even take the kids outside to act out some of their favorite hopscotch poems—balancing all that screen time with some outdoor time might not be a bad idea.

You can incorporate more technology as students present their ideas to the class. For example, an interactive whiteboard—a device you can connect to your computer that allows the user to edit and control the whiteboard display in real time using their finger or a stylus—will allow your students to enrich their slides with diagrams and visual explanations while they're giving a presentation.

For Problem-Solving

Fostering a love of mathematics is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and math careers. Offloading certain tasks to computer applications can open up new ways to get students interested.

Conrad Wolfram, CEO of the European branch of Wolfram Research, shared some new ideas for making math instruction less boring. The disconnect, he says, is that the way math is taught in schools is nothing like the way professionals use it in the real world. Technology offers an opportunity to change that. Rather than calculating everything by hand, Wolfram suggests, students can learn how to use computer applications to do laborious calculations for them so they can focus on higher-level problem solving and critical application of mathematical concepts. This approach helps students see that math is more than hand-calculating; it's something they can really use to solve problems.

For Visualizing and Interacting

Interactivity and problem-based learning offer great benefits for science instruction, too. Animoto is a cross-platform tool that lets students animate concepts and bring them to life. The solution allows students to create videos explaining concepts they're studying and share them with the class. It includes clips, graphics, and music tracks that students can use to create their videos.

By using a tool like Animoto, students not only benefit from teaching their peers through the videos they create; they also get to use their musical and visual senses to enliven the sometimes dry topics they focus on in science. What better way to get them to see the beauty of science than by letting them explore graphics of enlarged crystal structures and fractals, then actually use them to create something of their own?

Using technology in classrooms isn't just a mandate from on high; it can make your job a lot more fun. Technology gives your students the ability to create different types of assignments: tikbot animations, interactive group stories that actually show that everyone was involved—anything that's not the same old written report. Not only are these types of assignments fun for your students, they also make things more interesting for you while you're grading their projects. How many lab reports exploring the finer points of creating boric-acid slime can a science teacher read each year, anyway?

But more importantly, using these different technologies during class keeps kids engaged and excited—and nothing makes your job easier than working with a group of students who want to learn.