I don’t like email – but I like Slack!

I don’t like emails. As IT coordinator I get what I consider to be a lot of emails – around 60 a day right now. I’m often too busy during the day to go through them effectively and leave them till I get home. Then I spend around two hours mowing through them. I don’t like email not because I hate the volume I receive, but more due to its inefficiency.

Our school just had its first day of the school year today. Leading up to this week I received around 50–60 emails a day on top of trying to do my part to get the school in shape. I often, spend my day running around, completing tasks, helping my colleagues however I can and rarely have time to sit down and address them pesky emails. That leaves me with 50+ emails every night to mow through.

You might be thinking that the volume of email I receive is what bothers me, but that’s really not it. It’s how inefficient it is. Let me paint a picture for you. A teacher in a classroom is having trouble printing and so are five other teachers who have the same issue. Even though it’s one issue all five teachers will email me at different times to report it.

Instead of just dealing with all five issues at once, we end up dealing with them individually throughout the day – interrupting our tasks and thus making our time less effective. It’s not the teacher’s fault. How are they supposed to know that the issue is not confined to them? They’re just reporting an issue that is pressing and needs to be solved.

Another problem with this scenario is that only I see the message. I work with 5 other very talented and capable ICT engineers who are often as good or better at solving issues than myself. They will often miss out on these issues as they are only sent to me. Then if I do forward it onto a team member, they maybe too busy working on another problem to help that teacher in a timely manner.

See – not too efficient.

Now let me give you another issue. A member of the IT team wants to let me know of an issue so they email me. Sounds OK right? Not really. There may be other members of the team who need to know about this but are left in the dark. This leads me to do a lot of micromanaging and miscommunication. This often leaves the team going over the same old ground again and again. I don’t blame my team members – email is fast, reliable, and for a long time the only means to reach out to someone. It just happens to not be a sucky tool for team communication.

Groups

To help combat this I created a Google group. You don’t need to have Google apps for education, but it helps if you do. Instead of emailing just me, they email the group. All of the IT team will receive the email as well as myself, thus keeping the whole team informed and in the loop. I have one person per grade level or subject email a list of problems their team has. So we can engage in multiple issues in one visit as opposed to stopping back again and again.

This helps a little bit but we run into another problem. The rogue emailer. A person who decides that the protocol just doesn’t apply to them or they simply forget to send it to the group. This person isn’t nefarious and they probably feel that one direct email is harmless. Now chain that together with 15–20 people in a day. Yep – that is a lot busy work. Often, these emails can get buried in my inbox too, escaping the focus of the IT team and making the sender frustrated.

You see, I can’t control these people anymore than I can control the weather. I would have better luck getting Omar to clean his desk. :) They act independently and to be honest – there aren’t any consequences they will suffer doing this. I can’t dock their pay or place them in time out – are you kidding me. Also, for me to ignore their request just is irresponsible and not in my nature. The result is a bloated inbox that eats up my time.

So you see – I don’t like email, but I’m stuck with it. I deal with too many people to ignore it and there isn’t a better option out there for me – at least not yet. Yet, all hope is not lost.

Slack

Then I saw an article on The Verge about Slack. Slack is a way for groups or teams to communicate. Despite the link bait headline

Slack lets you create a small community focused on nothing but communication. Check out the screen shot below.

At a quick glance it may look like a simple chat program and it certainly has that feature (even with emojis) but there is much more to it. On the far left hand column there are some cool features.

As you can see there are channels. Slack creates a General and a Random channel (of course you can rename or delete these). I’ve also added Major Issues and Xerox to the mix as well. Then below that is a list of all members in the team. Since I created the group I have control on who is in the group. You can create as many channels as you want and each channel requires a purpose so it is clear why it was created.

When they are online a green dot is next to their name so I know who on my team is watching and available for immediate action. When I send a message, they receive it in real time and can reply. I can even send direct messages if need be.

Another great feature is how you can add Integrations to your Slack team. You can up to five for free and then you need to pay after that. For us, it works great because I can add Google Drive to it, making it easy to share files with my team.

In fact there is an impressive amount of integrations that you can add to Slack making it much more than just a communication hub for your team. Another great feature is how Slack handles linked files and actual files. You can easily find them in a side bar that you can hide or show at any time.

So for example, we were going to be setting up some new computers for about 60 staff members. We needed print drivers, ActivInspire, AirServer and a few other programs. As a team we all had them but no easy place to store them all. Slack stepped in and we were all able to upload our files and make them accessible for the entire team. This has already proved to be very, very nice.

This helps me and the rest of the team stay on the same page. We can update each other of ongoing projects, alert everyone of new issues, ask for help. No worry of sending errant emails to the wrong person, or accidentally hit Reply to all. It’s closed, just for us and gives us a clearer focus.

This isn’t to say that it is perfect, but it is certainly better than just email. My team and I still use email, especially dealing with vendors or administration to build an email chain, but when it comes to communication within the team Slack is the way to go for us.

It also has an iOS app, an Android app and desktop apps for Windows and Mac. They have all the bases covered here. If, you’re like Tony who is rocking Linux, you can still access the web version and if you have a BlackBerry, get a new phone.

Not for everyone

Don’t get me wrong, Slack will not replace email. That would probably be a disaster – but it helps me keep in touch with the IT team. Could this work within a school? I think it could if used properly. You wouldn’t want a Slack for an entire division or even a grade level, but let’s say you have a curriculum team, Slack could work very well. Also, if you have a team of people in charge of reaccreditation or working on a grant – Slack may very well be the better route to helping you build something effective and meaningful in your school.

The fact that all messages are easily searchable, files are very easy to find, you can make focused channels for various sections of your project makes Slack a real alternative to emailing when working within groups or on teams. Technology doesn’t always make our lives better or easier, but Slack is a product that seems to offer more focus, better efficiency and a clearer focus for members of a team. Give it a try for you and your team. It’s free!

https://slack.com/

Back to school with Edmodo

edmodo_image

Ah-the beginning of another fine school year. The printers are warm and busy, teachers are shaking hands and hugging each other catching up from the summer holiday and bulletin boards are being covered getting ready for that all important first day of school. Another thing that teachers are getting ready is their Edmodo groups.

If you haven’t heard yet, Edmodo is a learning management system – in fact I dare say it is the most popular one in the world! It’s free to use, powerful and doesn’t take too much time to set up.

Still unsure, then check out my Edmodo guide. You can find it on Scribd here or check it out below.

Edmodo by Patrick Cauley

Don’t copy and paste that image yet!

Most teachers I know (this includes me) often break the law. No we aren’t knocking over banks, stealing cars or performing identity theft. No, we are strictly small time crooks. What we do, is steal images that have been copyrighted. Yep, we are a truly nefarious bunch but it is nonetheless the law we are breaking and we are supposed to be a good model for our students.

The problem is most teachers have no idea what they’re doing is wrong. They search for images on Google, find one, copy and paste it into their document and have no idea if they are allowed to use it or not. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s there for you.

So how do you know? You want that cute kitten in your newsletter, homework assignment, rubric or class blog but now you’re worried the FBI will swoop down and lock you away for 25 years.

Fear not my fellow educators. I saw this flow chart the other day on Lifehacker that will help you answer your questions.

The flow chart was created by Curtis Newbold at The Visual Communication Guy. It pretty much covers it all, but if for some reason you are still unsure then the safe bet is to not use it and make your own from scratch.

For the actual link to the original post on the Visual Communication Guy click here.

Managing devices in your classroom

Going into a school with a BYOD or one to one device program can give teachers a moment of pause and even create a little trepidation or anxiety. There are usually a lot of questions about where to start and how to use these devices which are now so powerful.

One thing to remember is that these devices are tools. A friend of mine told a group of teachers that it should enhance your classroom-not dominate it. So starting with how to manage these devices is a logical place to start. Something to take note of is that I’m not going to be revealing any sacred teaching secrets here. A lot of what I’m going to write about is just good old classroom management techniques. This doesn’t make them any less effect but having dealt with technology in my classroom for the past seven years I know these work and work well.

Nonverbal technique

One teacher told me that his students walk in his room, open up their computers and then he spends the next ten minutes trying to get them off Facebook and on task and focused.

An easy solution here is to make two signs. One that says when it is OK to use computers and one to let the students know that computers need to be put away and focus needs to be elsewhere. So when your students walk in, see the sign, they know what to do. You can have the sign outside the room, on the board, just as long as it is very conspicuous. This is best introduced very early in the year and of course consistency is the key here. Be sure to use this method all year long and every now and again remind them that it’s always in place.

Here are some fun images (everyone loves cats right?)
No computers allowed.

Computers allowed.

Feel free to use these free royalty free images. I found them at morgueFile.

Another technique is to use a sound that allows students to know that they cannot use their computers. I made one in Garageband and it works quite well. I just took a few of their loops and threw them together. You can do it and easily make it as long as you want.

You can listen to mine here:

 

You can download it here:

Expectations walking through the door

Another easy one is to teach your kids what your expectations of them are when they enter your class. Maybe make it a policy that there are no computers for the first thirty minutes of class (or whatever suits your needs).

That way when students walk in, they know to keep that device away an put down.

Another alternative would be to have them complete a task using their device. They walk in, see the task on the board and get to work. The task could be to read an article that you’ve shared with them (Google Drive, Edmodo, Schoology, there are lots of ways to share documents or links), completing a short quiz on last night’s homework – basically anything you want. Just make sure that it is meaningful and not just something to kill a few minutes. If students think it’s useless, they won’t do it and how can you argue with them about that. They’re right.

Again, consistency is the key here. You don’t have to do it every day, but if you do it every Wednesday, then make sure you do it every Wednesday for the whole year. Just doing it willy-nilly will send the message that this is not very important and thus making things much more difficult for you to pull off.

Notes

A number of students like to take notes using their computer. They may use Evernote, Simplenote, Google Keep or even an online word processor (Google Docs, Zoho or Microsoft Live or 365). If you want to give them a choice – that’s fine but make sure you discuss how to take notes effectively and how to make the most the program and its features.

There are a lot of people out there who discourage note taking on a computer and they have some research to back it up. This doesn’t mean that the programs mentioned above can’t be utilized. What I like to do with notes, is to take them by hand and then refine them in Evernote. This is not a new practice I know a university professor who said he would take notes, rewrite them again and then (with a small study group) type them out. That way he was looking over the material often, not just once and not alone. Computer programs can be great for this.

It is all up to you though but make sure you think it through and convey your expectations to your students. Don’t just let them decide for you. If you believe it will hurt them and the class in the long run then do something about it early on.

Close the lid/Shut off the screen

A quick one that I learned very early on is that you cannot, I repeat, CANNOT compete with a glowing screen. It offers for more entertainment than you could ever hope to provide and it is far more accessible for your audience.

A quick way to kill this distraction was to have the kids shut their laptop lids or just put their devices to sleep and place it on their desk. I would even walk over and carefully shut laptop lids if students didn’t react quick enough (not angrily though). Other times I would wait until everyone had complied. Long silences can be a lot louder than a raised voice.

Don’t let them kinda close the lid – make sure it is completely closed. If it is kind of closed they will most certainly try to sneak a peek which is a distraction. Remember you aren’t hurting their machine closing the lid – your just putting it to sleep. It’ll wake up and be just fine-all their work will be there. I’ve done this with students and adults and let me tell you the result is the same – you gain the attention of your audience.

If it is a tablet or mobile I tell them to keep it on their desk and keep their hands off of it. If they “put it” in their bag or in their lap it is far too easy for them to take a quick look or fire off a quick text to their buddy. If it’s on their desk it’s harder for them to accomplish that discreetly. If you catch them using it and you’re fed up with it just walk over, ask them to power it down and then take it until the class is over. Trust me, they’ll remember to pick it back up before they leave the room.

Plan

I know this sounds kind of silly but make sure that you plan on how your students will use their computers in class. If you just let them walk in, open their computers and keep them open the whole time you are begging for them to be off task.

If you want them to use their computer give them direction and purpose. Maybe, they are in a group and are refining notes from early in the class. Maybe they are peer editing other student works. Maybe they are using a specific program to gather or organize specific type of data.

Either way, you decide when they can use it and what they are doing when they are using it.

Don’t use them

Just because your students have a device, it doesn’t mean you have to use it every day. If you want a class discussion and see no benefit to using devices, tell them the class before they won’t need them. If they do bring them, just remind them they won’t need it and to have them put it away.

Remember it is a tool. It is a a very powerful, flexible tool, but it’s not always the best tool for the job. You wouldn’t dig a hole with a screwdriver. As a teacher you need to make this decision and communicate that with your students.

In conclusion

If you’re still with me – thanks for that. This is longer than I intended. Just remember you’re in charge of your classroom. If you let the students be in charge and you don’t like how things are going blame yourself. You let that happen. This doesn’t mean you are powerless to do anything about it. You can make positive changes happen but you have to remember any good classroom management comes down to consistency and following through. Also, that if you don’t clearly set up these routines and expectations at the beginning of the year it’ll be harder to implement later on.

Once these are set up I think you can pull off some incredible lessons and learning opportunities for your students. Have fun with that and know that it can be fun – not a chore.

If you have some good techniques you use be sure to share them in the comments below.

Who needs books? Not me

OK, I just finished reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001 on my Nexus 7. After reading it I came to a two conclusions. The book wasn’t all that great and I can’t see myself purchasing or borrowing a physical book in the near future and I’m more than OK with that.

As far as the book goes, the Amazon reviews are a pretty good place to start. It just didn’t seem complete and the conclusion was pretty lack luster and just a bit of a disappointment. At any rate, the other books in the series are pretty good if you like sci-fi and probably worth your time.

Now onto my other conclusion. I can’t really see myself holding a physical book (if I have a choice in the matter) again. I just don’t see the point of it. Let me go to the beginning.

For Christmas of 2013 my wife bequeathed to me her old Kindle Keyboard as she upgrade to the newer Paperwhite. So I immediately started to find free ebooks by heading over to Project Guttenberg. Here you can find books that are out of copyright and can be downloaded for free – Shakespeare, Conrad basically a lot of classics. It was great and reading on the kindle was sweet. It was fast, easy, convenient and I can do it almost anywhere and the battery life oh man – it was a month! It fit in just about any bag, was light and comfortable to hold. I was hooked – this is how I wanted to read.

I also had the ability to borrow books from Amazon because I’m a Prime member, but Guttenberg and Amazon didn’t always offer everything I wanted and Amazon only let me borrow one book per month. So if I polished it off in a few days I was left waiting another 27 to borrow another one and there are some books I’d like to read but don’t necessarily want to buy. That’s OK because these two options were not my only source of literature my good people. I could also borrow books from my local library in Ohio.

Yep, I live more than 7,000 miles from my hometown and I can still access, browse and borrow books electronically. That is truly amazing. If you’re wondering, I use the my Kindle (if it allows it) or the Overdrive app Nexus 7. Of course not everything was available but that’s OK – a lot of what I want is there which is awesome! So why do I need a physical book to enjoy it?

I know people love to go to bookstores, sit, peruse and browse through the stacks, maybe sit and have a latte and talk with friends. I get that, I do, but living where I live, there aren’t that many places here to do that and even back home I rarely felt the urge to jump in my car and head out to a Barnes and Noble or a local haunt just to kill a couple of hours. It just wasn’t my bag baby.

I know that textbooks for example allow you to write notes in the margin, highlight more easily than a tablet or e-reader will allow but for general reading – I see no reason why I need to pick up a physical copy of a book ever again.

What do you think?