Reaching the Auditory Learner: Text-to-Speech Software and Voice Comments

It's undeniable that students learn best in different ways. So much time is spent classifying learners as auditory, visual, or kinesthetic yet often I find students are a combination of various learning styles - I know this is true for myself. 


Sometimes it's not enough to have the voice in your head reading along with you; sometimes it's just easier to have accompanying audio to text you are reading. Text-to-speech software is a great teaching tools for ELL students, struggling readers, students with learning disabilities like dyslexia or auditory learners. The following are my top text-to-speech tools:

Some of my students this past year requested I leave them audio comments on their work instead of written text. Perhaps this was due to the high ESL population at my school who find speaking and listening to the English language much easier to understand than reading and writing. Or perhaps these students truly did identify with being auditory learners.

Sometimes students just prefer to receive feedback in a certain way. As an educator who is a strong believer in differentiating my instruction, I am open to leaving comments in a form most useful for my students. 
Technology can be utilized to support various feedback mediums. Here are various ways to give audio feedback on your students' work:
See link to the slides here. How do you reach your auditory learners?

Learning Skills and Work Habits: Tech Tools for Tracking Student Behaviours

The first statement of the Learning Skills section of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s publication Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools states, “The development of learning skills and work habits is an integral part of a student’s learning” (p. 10).
Teachers are expected to report on six categories:
            • Responsibility
            • Organization
            • Independence 
            • Collaboration
            • Initiative 
            • Self-Regulation
Learning Skills should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades. Instead, the assessing, evaluating, and reporting on the achievement of curriculum expectations and on the demonstration of learning skills should be done separately.
Though some may identify other skills as being crucial to student success, it is clear that a student’s work habits significantly contribute to their success in school and for life beyond the classroom. 
The Definition and Selection of Competencies (DeSeCo) Project, sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has underlined the importance of identifying and developing key competencies as follows:
Globalisation and modernisation are creating an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. To make sense of and function well in this world, individuals need, for example, to master changing technologies and to make sense of large amounts of available information. They also face collective challenges as societies – such as balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability, and prosperity with social equity. In these contexts, the competencies that individuals need to meet their goals have become more complex, requiring more than the mastery of certain narrowly defined skills.  
(OECD, p. 4)
We are preparing students for an information saturated world where they will need to be self-directed learners with the skills to collaborate with others, are organized, have initiative, and set and monitor personal goals. As educators it is our responsibility to foster and help develop these skills in our students.
When it comes time for report card data entry, our tracking should be consistent and accountable to result in accurate reporting of students’ learning skills and work habits. 
The following are three simple tools for tracking students behaviours for the reporting of learning skills:
See the slides here.

21st Century Tools: The Role of the Teacher

Once again, I refer to Dr. Matthew J. Koehler's model of TPACK to conceptualize the interconnected and overlapping realms of teacher knowledge. The question posed is concerning the role of the teacher as it pertains to learning and understanding 21st century tools.  The TPACK model shows a breakdown of the areas of expertise teachers are expected to know, including content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and technological knowledge. According to this model, teachers should strive to reach the middle area where all three realms overlap. 

Content Knowledge: this is the information on the subjects we teach. But I think we can all agree that being an expert in a field does NOT necessarily equate to being a good teacher. Pedagogical Knowledge: this is ‘the art of teaching’. It includes such things as taking into consideration learning styles, differentiating instruction, creating a classroom environment and assessment practices. Basically, its your philosophy of education. Technological Knowledge: this is the tools used to teach. Today, many people’s immediate thoughts are of modern technologies. However, it can also includes things as simple as a pencil or a calculator. The overlapping area between content and pedagogy covers the core business of teaching. It is what to teach and the best way to teach it. However, it is often the third realm of technology with its overlapping areas that tends to be the most challenging for teachers. It’s true, that technology is advancing at exponential rates and there’s no way any one person could keep up with it all.

So how should teachers face the daunting task of learning and teaching with 21st century tools?

First, teachers should remember that technology (including new computer-related software and hardware) are merely tools to use to support student learning. The foundation of teaching still lies in a teacher’s knowledge of the content and their own personal teaching pedagogy. Effective technology integration does not consist of using it as a gimmick or reward for students. Instead, technology should be utilized as a teaching tool for lessons firmly rooted in calculated pedagogy and closely linked to content and curriculum outcomes. Second, it’s important for teachers to realize that they only need to know enough about new technologies to integrate it into their specific classroom - the same way that we only use teaching practices which fit our pedagogy and content knowledge which relates to our subject. Teachers do not need to be tech experts to effectively use technology in the classroom. Instead, the best 21st century educators know of a tools which fits the context of their teaching, some basic skills of how to use and tool, as well as the courage to try it out! Third, teachers should remember that a proper education in the 21st century must include teaching and learning with new technology. Educators must equip students with technological skills to be digital citizens and successful in the world. It is the role of the teacher to learn alongside his or her students as technology advances to guide students on their journey and model self-sufficiency when learning about new technologies.

Microsoft Word Online vs. Google Docs

Why Both Are Great:

  1. Collaborate and share with otherswork on a document in live time; collaborate on whole folders of documents; share with others via a link or email with various levels of editing rights
  2. Auto-save featureno more backup files as documents save every few seconds
  3. Sync all your documents in a clouded driveaccess your work from any device by signing into an account

    How They Differ:

    At first glance, One Drive and the comparable Google Drive offer many of the same types of documents to create. OneDrive does not offer a Drawing option, but this is not that great of a feature in my opinion as there are many better drawing tools available online. A major benefit of One Drive over Google Drive is an online version of OneNote.

    But apparently Google offers OneNote as as an App in the Chrome Store:

    What’s a greater concern is the mere 3 GB of storage space on One Drive with the ability to upgrade by recommending the service. This is extremely limited when considering that Google offers 15GB of free storage (30GB if you are signed up at work or school).

    For additional reasons Google Docs edges out the competition see this article: 10 Reasons Why Google Docs is better than Word Online. On the flip side, there is a not-as-convincing list: 5 Reasons for Microsoft fans to dump Google Docs. Though the above article does bring up a key problem with Google Docs: FORMATTING. If you don't know what I am talking about, read about the way Google Docs often alters original formatting when documents are converted.  
    Personally, the only time I ran into formatting issues in my daily use of Docs was when I printed pages, but I do admit it can be a problem. Ironically, it was the Word Online document’s formatting that was disarranged during my demo.

    The Bottom Line:

    If you work in an environment that is already utilizing Microsoft products or produced highly formatted documents, Word Online is an ideal tool to increase collaboration and sync work. However, if you regularly use Google tools (like I do in a Google certified school) than it makes more sense to stick with Google tools.

    Blended Learning: Learning Management Systems

    This hybrid method of learning combines traditional classroom and online education. Blended learning has emerged with the advancement of new technologies in an effort to reach and teach students more effectively.  While educators may debate the exact meaning of the term, the gist is that online technology is used not just to supplement, but transform and improve the learning process. 
    The Ontario Ministry of Education explains the tools used to create Blended learning should help students:
    • learn or review key concepts
    • stay organized 
    • communicate with others
    • show what they have learned
    • submit assignments
    • track achievement

    The website further states, “Blended learning uses the tools of the provincial learning management system (LMS) to teach and support learning in a face-to-face class.” Thus, technology used to support Blended Learning not just technology tools which can be used in the classroom, but online learning platforms meant to support traditional classroom learning.  The goal is to use technology to build an online learning community that transcends the walls of the classroom so students can continue their learning outside the classroom. 

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    It is my school’s policy that students and teachers use only copyright-free material. This makes sense hypothetically, but what does it actually mean? Where could this mysterious content be found?  After asking around, it became clear to me that copyright-free material was not understood by many other teachers as well. So how could we possibly teach and model finding such content for our students? Although it was part of my job to ensure students were only using copyright-free material, I knew very little myself about what can and cannot be used nevermind how to monitor this from my students.  However, teaching in a technology-focused school means the students use digital technology to create many of their projects. They take images, video clips, sound bites and more from the internet and to create their own products on a regular basis. 

    I decided to make it my mission to learn about copyright licensing alongside my students. 

    First, I compiled a list of websites with copyright-free material. I sent students to my Pinterest board of copyright-free resources. However, my students thought Pinterest itself was all copyright-free material which could not be further from the truth. I witness numerous students searching for "copyright-free" content using the search bar of Pinterest!

    I can see now why the students were confused.
    So next, I modeled finding content using the Creative Commons website. This search engine links to various copyright-free sites. But students still struggled with the specific options on the different websites.
    Luckily Creative Commons has a great resource to explain what each of the copyright permissions mean:

    For my own students, I made it clear what the best options would be for them on various websites: 

    We went over the above slides as a class before any task requiring images, video or audio. I also print hard copies of these slides for students to refer to at their desks. 
    Whenever we brainstormed Success Criteria as a class, I made a point to include "copyright-free material" in the list. It became second nature to always use copyright-free content and students began searhing for only copyright-free content in their other subject classes without being asked to.

    Research Function in Google Docs and Presentations

    Since I mostly utilize Google tools in my teaching, one of the simplest ways for my students to find copyright-free material is using the Research Tool in Google Docs and Presentations. This tool allows you to search Google content (filtered by usage rights) directly in Docs via a pop up box. 
    A few of my students made this tutorial video: 
    I think it is important to teach students to identify and understand the copyright-free licenses so they can determine for themselves what material they can and cannot use. Furthermore, students should understand WHY they should use copyright-free material and how to label their own work in the Creative Commons.

    Online Privacy for Students in a Digital Age

    When I taught Grade 8 English, I always had my students write an autobiography at the beginning of the year to learn more about them. This past year I added a media focus by having students design a digital poster to represent themselves. The software to be used was left wide open - students could use anything from Microsoft Publisher to online digital poster software to simple Paint. I even gave student the option to publish their work online as visual resume or an page. My intention for this online option was to encourage students to begin building a positive online presence. It was not mandatory, but rather an option and platform for the students to showcase their accomplishments.  See my lesson instructions here:

    We spoke as a class about what is and isn’t appropriate to post online.  However, I received mixed reactions from parents and my peers. Was this still too much information for students to post publicly? Should students under a certain age be anonymous on the internet? Should such online behaviours be encouraged by a school?

    Where do we draw the line between creating a positive digital footprint and protecting children from the dangers of the internet? 

    In a school which introduced a 1:1 laptop program and supports a tech-infused learning community dedicated to the principles of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), these are critical questions to be asked. And it seemed that no one knew the answers. My classroom project sparked a lively debate among educators at my school concerning what the students should and should not be doing online. On one side, it is important for schools to protect students from the dangers of the internet. On the other side, I think we could all admit that students with their own laptops and a constant wifi connection are visiting whatever sites they wish. Instead of hiding children from the internet, I feel it’s the role of the school to educate students on safe online behaviours. We can never teach someone swim from the deck of the pool. We of course shouldn’t push them into the water with no previous guidance, but instead assist them into the water with a suitable knowledge of what to do once in the water and how to react to unfavourable situations.  From my experience, educators often prematurely give students full reign of the internet after deciding technology is a beneficial tool for education. We essentially pushed students into the deep end without the necessary skills needed to stay afloat. Students need to be explicitly taught digital citizenship and have their online actions closely monitored while they are still learning appropriate online behaviour. See my follow-up lesson on online privacy here:

    Please feel free to use any of these resources in your own teaching of online safety.

    21st Century Teaching Means Collaboration

    The information age has broadened our accessibility to information and people. As technology and consequently approaches to education advance, the roles of the teacher and learner in the 21st century are drastically altered too.  

    My emphasis as an educator has always been about collaboration. Even the most dedicated and hard-working teacher is not as effective and resourceful as two teachers collaborating. Working with others increases productivity, encourages critical brainstorming and problem solving, increases professional learning and offers a different perspective of the content to be taught.  I have consistently pushed cross-curricular projects within my school and modelled my instruction after what the Ontario Ministry of Education has coined Teaching-Learning Critical Pathways (TLCPs). It is through working closely beside others teachers that I have learned the most about teaching.

    When it comes to collaboration in my classroom, I foster a cooperative learning environment for my students through group activities and exploration of topics. I strongly believe that all people learn more in a social setting where they are encouraged to questions and test their ideas instead of a more traditional rote-style learning setting. Learners are encouraged to interact with one another, share ideas and work together to complete tasks and solve problems.  However, traditional teaching methods do not often incorporate collaborative learning and often it is viewed as ‘cheating’. Yet 21st century teaching requires a re-imagining of what learning should look like. If students are unable to share information with one another and discuss their ideas, then perhaps it is the assignment that is flawed and not the cooperative nature of the students. Teachers must re-evaluate where assignments lie on Blooms Taxonomy. If the sharing of answers between students defeats the purpose of the assignment, the task itself needs to be changed so students have the opportunity to analyse, synthesize and evaluate topics instead of simply regurgitating facts and ideas. 

    For me, 21st teaching and learning is all about collaboration. Collaboration among teachers (in-person and online) and collaboration between students.

    Social Media in the Classroom - Twitter Pilot

    Social media is a great tool to integrate into the classroom and I have experienced with various platforms such as Edmodo, Blogger, Google Sites, Facebook, Skype and most prevalently Twitter. I used Twitter in my practicum classroom back in Ontario and it went over quite well. The students stayed in touch with me and their peers from the ease of their phones and home computers. I was able to send links to the students easily and recommend educational resources related to the topics were were learning about in class. Last year, I piloted a Twitter program at my school and Hong Kong and did not have as successful of results. Twitter is not popular in Asia and many of the students had never even heard of it before. After the chaos of getting 90 students signed up on the website, I found Twitter not to be very user-friendly for 12 year olds. Unfortunately the students were not very engaged in using Twitter as it was not a form of social media they were interested in using. In addition, we ran into many problems with the students’ inboxes getting spammed with adult content.

    In the end, we found other collaborative web 2.0 tools such as Edmodo and Google Docs a better fit for our students. I personally use Twitter to connect with other educators and find it a valuable tools for collecting resources and having conversations with other educators.
    For those new to Twitter, see this document about the basics of using Twitter (I made this for my students). Here is a presentation and instructions for signing up to Twitter we presented to the teachers after our pilot project.
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