Smart-lesson Review

I am a big fan of SmartBoard and I think it is such a great technology to promote interaction between teachers and students.  It allows students,   instead of teacher, navigate the board.  Besides, teachers and students can present projects on it, which pictures and text are shown without delay with the simple touch of a finger.  Furthermore, it can stimulate students’ motivation and creates incentive.  Students love to work on the interactive whiteboard.  I observed a 7th grade technology class at Pleasantville Middle School this semester.  The teacher was using the SmartBoard to give students quizzes.  The students in that class were so motivated, even asked to be quizzed, simply for the fun of writing on the board.  It really brought a lot of excitements to the classroom.

I’ve downloaded a few SMART-created lesson activities from the SmartBoard webpage.  One of my favorites is a Geography lesson on Volcanoes.  It is designed for 9th or 10th grade students.  The objective of this lesson is to let students learn some famous volcanoes in the world.  The reason why I like this lesson activity most is because it is very interactive.  It allows students to drag the volcanoes to the locations of the most volcanic activity.  And students can also click on the tectonic plates to reveal their names.  Students can even use the animated magnifying glasses to find the names of some famous volcanoes in this lesson activity.  So instead of the traditional lecture – teachers talking and students listening and taking notes, it promotes active learning, which allows students do more than just listen: be engaged in solving problems.

What can we learn from video games?

Why kids love games so much? Why they can sit there for such long, concentrated periods playing computer games, but cannot keep their attention for more than fifteen minutes in class? Is it their fault? Does learning by its very nature have to be associated with “hard” , “tedious” and “boring”? Is it possible to make the process of learning just as fun as playing video games?

Video games have a bad reputation. Many teachers and parents think that video games are nothing but waste of time, including myself at one time. However, there are some people believe that video games do have something worthwhile to teach us. Marc Prensky, the authors of “Escape from Planet Jar-Gon, Or, what video games have to teach academics about teaching and writing” – a review of What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee, states in his article that “Game designers have a better take on the nature of learning than curriculum designers” and “ In a playful context kids seem to have an almost infinite capacity for learning”. Instead of viewing video games as “Bad games” or “totally worthless”, the author asks teachers and parents to rethink the value of the video games, and to consider what we can learn from video games to make learning fun!

In this article, Marc translates Gee’s “36 principles”(jargon) into “36 things that kids can learn from video games”(plain English). For example, video game players learn from doing and reflecting; relating the game world to other worlds; having to master new skills at each level; reading in context, etc… And he also described the relationship between games, learning and academia. He says that game designers want players to be motivated to stick with their game to the end. Because they focus on engagement, people rush to use their products; Game designers have invented, via intuition and trial and error, a variety of techniques and strategies to encourage players to stay longer; When game designers occasionally articulate their strategies, it is done very simply, with clear guidance.
At the end of this article, Marc also lists a few ideas for us to think about what we can learn from video games:

  • See if you can avoid “telling” totally
  • Give your reader/ listener/ learner, at every step of the way, meaningful decisions to make
  • Gvie your reader/ listener/ learner clear short, medium and long term goals to accomplish as they read or listen, and alternative ways of doing this
  • Give your reader/ listener/ learner alternate path through the book or session
  • Give your reader/listener/learner better, more frequent rewards

From my point of view, I feel that the way video games deliver/instruct information is more effective than the methods of traditional teaching. For instance, rather than teach, many video games are structured in a ways that allows kids to learn. Where a classroom teacher might impart information and then instruct a student to go use that information, a video game generally takes the opposite approach. Players start out doing and additional information is given along the way as needed. This approach, says both Gee and Marc, optimizes learning.

Of course, it is impossible to turn school into one giant video game. Even if it was possible, I don’t think it would be advisable. However, I do believe that we can get kids to learn more if we can make learning more fun.

Wikis and WebQuests

A WebQuest is a structured, inquiry-oriented activity for students utilizing resources found on the Internet. They are literally “quests” in which students are given a task to complete and a role that helps them complete it, all while using the Internet resources provided by their teacher. WebQuests are written for students, not teachers. They should be immediately accessible to the student in terms of reading-level, motivation, and interest.

Wikis are websites that provide easy-to-use tools for creating, editing, and sharing digital documents, images, and media files.  Multiple participants can enter, submit, manage, and update a single webspace creating a community of authors and editors.

Both tools are great for helping student deepen their understanding and stretch their thinking.  However, from the perspective of co-operation, I feel that Wikis is more powerful than WebQuests.  Since Wikis allow people work together, they are effective in promoting collaborative learning within classes, between classes, among schools, with parents, and even with communities.  Students can learn from each other and expand their thinking about a topic by working as a team.  In addition, it is easy for them to go back and track who did what and when.

Besides, I feel that the WebQuest approach to inquiry-based learning can be rediscovered through the use of wikis.  I just came across a wiki called the “Goofy Global News (“.  In this wiki, students are introduced to an inquiry task related to real and fictional news stories, then provided with online resources and activities.  Students add their own pages to the wiki and use the discussion tab to review the pages of their peers.

Why Moodle?

I have been working with Dr. Xiao-lei, Wang to create a Chinese Learning website to provide free Chinese classes to the community. We want to find something that is similar to Blackboard, but free! Finally we came across Moodle and I have been working with it for a couple of days and I think it is a great open source.  Of course it is not perfect.  However, it fits our basic needs to build an online community, and cost nothing.

Moodle is provided freely as Open Course software (under the GNU Public License) and a free online course management system (CMS).  It has many useful and friendly tools, which can integrate all our online functionality in a single application. Teachers don’t have to use many different systems like webpage, wiki, blog, BB (bulletin board) which are scattered in different places. Besides, it’s very easy to set up and run a Moodle system as Moodle can run without modification on Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, Netware and any other system that supports PHP, including most webhost providers. Furthermore, Moodle is available in 40 languages, and it is Open Source software, which means you are free to download it, use it, modify it and even distribute it (under the terms of the GNU General Public License).

One of the big disadvantages about the open source is that there is no guarantee that development will happen.  In other words: it is not possible to know if a project will ever reach a usable stage, and even if it reaches it, it may die later if there is not enough interest.  We considered about this issue before we made our decision.  We searched online about custom reviews and looked some examples of other’s Moodle system, and the results are satisfactory.  I am especially glad that Moodle website provides a support center that contains readily available documentation, as well as an ongoing community support. It makes a lot easier for a rookie like me!

Reflection on Personal Learning Environment Framework (PLEF) by Mohamed Amine Chatti

I recently came across an article on the Personal Learning Environment Framework (PLEF) by Mohamed Amine Chatti, a PhD student from  RWTH Aachen University, Germany.  I found this article very interesting as it shows the system architecture of PLEF. Besides, the article also compares the PLEF with the personalized start pages (iGoogle, My Yahoo, Netvibes, or Pageflakes, etc.), and includes an example of a PLEF page he created to follow the ongoing distributed discussion on connectivism and connective knowledge. This PLEF page is a great example of how PLEF can help us gather information, process information and build an online learning community to support lifelong learning.

As teachers, I think we can benefit from both PLEF and personalized start pages.  For me, it seems that the personalized start pages (tightly connected web tools) such as Pageflakes works better for formal learning – learning  inside the classroom, as it is great for creating Project-Based Learning, giving instructions and let students focus on what they need to know.

However, I do agree that the potential of PLEF is huge and it has a lot of functionalities that the tightly connected web tools lack of.  For example, PLEF uses OpenID for authentication; Access control is defined at both PLEF page and element levels; PLEF provides a tag view of all PLE elements in addition to the traditional page view, which allow learners add tags in order to be able to classify, categorize, search and re-find their PLEF elements at a later time……etc. I think all these characteristics makes PLEF a great tool for informal learning – learning outside the classroom.  I believe this is going to be the trend, as by some estimates, 75-80% of on-the-job learning is done informally–that is, outside of a classroom-based (physical or virtual), highly structured learning situation.   With the growth of the Internet and a variety of second generation web tools, the ability to construct a personal learning environment that emphasizes and leverages informal learning has really exploded.    As teachers, we should be aware of this trend and guide our students  build their own “Personal Learning Environment” in order to become a lifelong learner.

PBL: U.S. – China High School Students Exchange Program

This PBL is designed for the 10th grade Chinese Language Class.  It asks groups of students to research the holiday, places, family and school of China, and then discusses how they can adjust the life in China faster and better.  The time frame is two weeks.


Our school participates in a U.S. – China High School Students Exchange program this year.  You are selected to go to China as an exchange student, which means you will live with your Chinese host family and attend a Chinese school for a year.  You will leave the familiar behind and immerse yourself into a whole different world.  I’m sure this will be one of the most challenging and rewarding experience in your life, as you can gain a real understanding of another country and its culture and society, but at the same time, find out something new about your own culture and point of view by seeing it from a fresh perspective.

In order to adjust your life in China faster and better, you should be familiar with the Chinese culture, holiday, food and customs before you leave.  This week, the task of your team is to explore China from the following aspects:

  • Traditional Chinese Holidays
  • China Tourist Attractions: Cities and Tourist Hot Spots
  • Family in China
  • School in China

When your research is finished, you will meet as a team to discuss how the culture, people and life in China is different from your life in U.S. and how can you adjust your new life in China better and faster.

Is the problem too much information, or out-of-date expectations about how information should be organized?

I recently read a blog about how we can organize and filter the information that comes to us ( This was of great interest to me as I sometimes feel it is very hard to keep up with the latest information, not because there are not enough, but too much! Then a question came up to my mind: Is the problem too much information, or out-of-date expectations about how information should be organized?

“We have become far more proficient in generating information than we are in managing it.”  I completely agree with the author that it is really important to learn strategies to manage information in this digital age. The author shared some of the tools that are good for organizing the information, such as Google Reader, Delicious, Diigo, Wordle and Google Forms. These tools can help us to control the flow of information that we receive.

I’ve just learned some of them in this class, and I would like to spend some time to explore the rests.  For example, with the help of RSS, with little effort we can easily add and display articles in hundreds of websites – automatically! If the quality of the content in the feed declines, we simply remove the feed from our RSS reader and we will not receive any additional updates from that source. The RSS reader acts as an aggregator, allowing us to view and scan multiple content streams in a timely fashion.

How to motivate our student to write by using blogs — Reading the article Educational Blogging by Stephen Downes

The article Educational Blogging by Stephen Downes  gives us a comprehensive view about Educational Blogging.  Among the others, he presents some background about blogging and focus on how to leverage blogging in education. He believes that educational blogging is beneficial to our students and has changed the traditional classroom teaching.

From my point of view, I think the greatest thing that Blog brings is that publishing is no longer a privilege of a small portion of people. The philosophy of blogging is that everyone can publish!   Blogging belongs to EVERYONY, from a normal housewife to a 12 years old child.  It gives everybody an equal opportunity to write, to speech, to influence others and it also provides us a chance to communicate between people from different places, backgrounds and cultures and motivates people to write more.

Nowadays, Blogging are used frequently in the classroom settings to support learning. Students are asked to develop their own blogs and submit their assignments there so that not only their teachers, but everybody who has access to the internet can see it and make comments.  In this way, students can “exchange their point of view with the rest of the world not just people in their immediate environment”[i].

Many teachers think that blogging can motivate students to write and improve their critical thinking skills and writing skills by itself.  Is it really the truth? Simply by asking our students to submit their homework online can automatically improve their writing skills? In the article Educational Blogging, Stephen Downes cited the work of Will Richardson that “By its very nature, assigned blogging in schools cannot be blogging.  It is contrived.  No matter how much we want to spout off about the wonders of audience and readership, students who are asked to blog are blogging for an audience of one, the teacher. When the semester ends, students drop blogging like wet cement.”

In my opinion, the only thing that can motivate our student to continue writing the blog is PASSION — the passion to learn the world around us and the passion to contribute our own ideas.  But how can we teach our students to write blogs with passion? Here are some of my thoughts:

According to Stephen Downes, “Blogging is about, first, reading.  But more important, it is about reading what is of interest to you: your culture, your community, your idea……if a student has nothing to blog about, it is not because he or she has nothing to write about or has a boring life.  It is because the student has not yet stretched out to the larger world, has not yet learned to meaningfully engage in a community.” So before assigning students to go write directly, maybe assigning them to read first is a better approach.

Besides, when we give student a writing assignment, we should try to choose some interesting topics that at least everybody has something to write about.  It can be the topics to be debated, or something that is related to our daily life.  This way, it may decrease the numbers of students who write about nothing but only trivia in their blogs.

Moreover, teachers should give students instant feedback and continuous guidance on their blogs.  This way, students feel that their teachers care about what they think and appreciate what they write, which will motivate them to write more.  Besides, it is also a great way for teachers to know their students better, and to gain trust between each other.

Blogging is a great tool for students to learn, if and only if when appropriate guidance is provided.

[i] Educational Blogging, 2004 Stephen Downes,