Make your parent emails more meaningful with @adobespark

In this age of instant communication, the old paper newsletter that often ended up scrunched up at the bottom of the bag is a relic of the past.

Each week I send out a ‘warm fuzzy’ email where parents learn more about what’s going on in class as well as important dates coming up.  As the drafter of the emails, I had several needs not being met by email

  • No information on how many parents had read the email – Am I sending notices out into virtual void?
  • No ability to add a large number of photos or video to the email.
  • The emails didn’t look visually appealing – particularly if reading on a mobile device

Thinking from a parent’s perspective I knew that the parents wanted

  • Visually appealing information – no large blocks of text
  • Lots of photos
  • The ability to access readable content on multiple devices
  • A chance to show they’ve received the information without necessarily sending a reply

Enter Adobe Spark.

Adobe Spark is a free digital storytelling platform. Whether you’re viewing Adobe Spark Page on your phone on your computer, the results are beautifully designed and readable multi-media pages.

You can use Spark in a web-based browser or on iOS Apps. You do need a sign to access Adobe Spark, but you can use your Google Account. The bonus of the App feature is that you can create on the go, I often write my newsletters on the commute home from school. Being able to send out beautiful updates from school camp or out on field trips is another possibility.

What I love about Spark as a creator is the simplicity of the interface.

I use pages for my Newsletters.

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You then build your content using a simple interface – the only things you must include is an image, headline, and sub heading.

The rest is up to you.

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You can add text, links to videos, Photo Grids, a ‘Glide Show’ ( text is overlayed on a photo). Spark turns all your content into well-designed multimedia stories that you can then share via a link with your parents. Here’s an example of a recent newsletter from my class.

When you are finished hit the share button and you’ll get a notice like this.

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You do need to select a category. Be careful to turn off the ‘get noticed’ if you don’t want your email to be promoted on the Adobe Site.

I then share the link out via email to my parents.

One of the great features of Spark is the ability of readers to acknowledge that they’ve read the newsletter through giving some love.

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As a creator, I have access to the number of views and hearts each update received on the ‘My Projects’ page. This lets me know, at the very least, my messages are getting through but I also like seeing the hearts.

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I could see Adobe Spark being used for digital storytelling. In particular, I think it could be a great platform for digital portfolios for learners which is something I may trail with the learners next year.

 

Are e-portfolios past their educational used by date?

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This post is perhaps a tad hypocritical.

I have not one but two e-portfolios. I’ve used e-portfolios in class for the last few years.

They’ve been around in education since back when I was coding html sites in the 1990s. However over the last few months I’ve been wondering if e-portfolios have been mean meeting the learning needs in my class.

Is it time for education to move on from its love affair with portfolios?

My first problem with e-portfolios is right there in the name – we’re using technology to replace what was done on paper. The inclusion of video and audio moves e-portfolios perhaps into the augmentation level but really they aren’t all that transformative.

If the goal of having all this expensive technology in class is to transform learning, we need to push us thinking beyond digitising what could easily be achieved on paper.

Yet so much time and energy is devoted to talking about e-portfolios and that’s before they hit the classroom.

Often the systems supporting e-portfolios are unintuitive. What should be a two click job ends up being sucked into multiple lessons showing kids how to upload content, embed files, link to content or finding fixes when systems won’t talk to each other.

The portfolio becomes the learning rather than the tool to support the documentation of learning.

The problem with e-portfolios is that they create a walled garden. Fine when you are doing something the designers have envisioned but infuriating the minute you wander from the trail.

Yet the internet by its design is divergent.

Media is created on multiple devices and shared through different content channels.

This year I used blogger as portfolio found myself frustrated at the unnecessary hurdles being put up in order to maintain e-portfolios.

  • Made a cool path on pic – that needs to be saved first to the camera roll before it can be uploaded to blogger.
  • Easy blogger junior was a quick way for students to send video content to their blogfolios until the videos were too long and it didn’t support tagging aside from the child’s name.
  • A creative animation on keynote needs to uploaded to youtube, then embedded into a post.
  • The kids made an awesome book creators. Great but they won’t upload directly to blogger.
  • A google doc with a writing assessment needs to be linked back to in blogger. There’s a whole bunch time lost publishing the doc to the web, linking to the doc and that’s before the child has had time to reflect on their writing.
  • Showing an album of photos of a school event or science project? Fantastically easily on flickr or a photo stream on iOS but then that requires a link in blogger.

All these superfluous steps translate into lost learning time and shift the focus of the learning onto the technology.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a problem specific to blogger. There are other platforms out there I could use but they would have other issues and I know my actions part of the problem.

I am very conscious of the digital tools I introduce to the children I teach. Any app or website needs to fit the purpose of the learning otherwise I don’t use it. As a result, the kids become critical of the technology they are using to support their learning.

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Over the course of this past school year, I was amazed at how quickly the children were starting to make decisions about what tools to use but were able to justify why they wanted to use them. It struck me that if my year 4s are already able to articulate what applications they think best suit their learning needs now, imagine what they’ll be capable of in a few years. More importantly, the older kids are highly capable of documenting their informal learning experiences right now.

The problem is that their institutions often don’t recognise the tools they are using.

E-portfolios won’t change this.

Particularly if the tools don’t recognise that kids are going to have digital lives outside of those walled gardens.

Being able to curate and share evidence of learning is important. But for the amount of work that teachers do and the amount of learning time sucked out of maintaining e-portfolios, a big question needs to be asked.

Is the technology supporting the learning or is the technology the learning?

Because the most important e-portfolio in our students lives is the one we don’t really give that much thought to – their google search footprint.

Sometimes the hassle of tech just isn’t worth it…

IMG_0182There are moments in teaching where everything around you has turned to custard.

Resources arrive late, there’s a big event happening and the technology isn’t playing ball.

Yep you read right.

Even us technology enthusiasts have days where we wonder out loud after having plans and back up plans fall through.

The classroom is in disarray and we seethe.

Technology was supposed to make teaching easier but it is throwing up more problems than solutions.

Is it really worth all this hassle?

And there’s that kid.

The kid who you spent a lot of time on restorative conversations, the kid who is often in ‘trouble,’ the kid who puts in the bare minimum on a good day.

Yep that one.

At 8pm that kid emails through a video created not because it was on the homework sheet or because you said so.

But for the joy of it.

This kid is doing things you haven’t taught and using resources you hadn’t gotten around to showing the class.

You realise that one teaspoon at a time there’s a shift in this kid’s perception of learning.  The tech is helping that kid in ways you don’t know because you were too busy being stressed by what wasn’t working today to notice what was going well in the classroom.

After that you know you’ll go another 10 rounds of classroom madness just to get that something awesome out of that kid…

A lesson in effective communication

Flight delays.

Like many small set backs in life the attitude you take determines your experience.

In attempt to make hay while the sun shines, I sent out this light-hearted tweet.

As this conversation was taking place, Tripit was quickly sending push out notifications of gate changes and delays to the flight to my iPhone.

At no point did I ever feel lost. In fact I was spending time dropping in on #satchatoc and #educampakl while waiting for my flight.

Aside from extra professional learning time, my biggest takeaway from being delayed in Dallas is that in an era of instant, personalized communication the traditional models schools use to communicate with students and their families – newsletters and reports – are relics from another age.

In pre-email days school communication was mass produced, one size fits all, periodic and lengthy. All parents received the notice containing details of the Year 4 cross country date in the weekly school newsletter whether they had a child in Year 4 or not. The piece of paper containing the newsletter might make it home in time or languish in the bottom of the school bag until the day before, or after, the Year 4 cross country.

In the era of email we’ve gone to newsletters on a slightly smaller scale, year group or syndicate. Delivery has become more accurate and content more relevant. Yet this system has added to teacher workload without really giving parents what they want; timely, relevant and personalized updates about their child’s learning.

Unfortunately I’ve yet to find a way to balance the need for report comments to be timely and relevant for each child in the class while at the same time teaching a full course load and attempting to have a life.

Non-teachers can find it hard how time consuming writing reports are. To put things in perspective, my last batch of report comments was just shy of 12,000 words – the same length as my Honours dissertation. Despite my effort my comments were inherently flawed.

As I was giving my end of year reports a final proofread, I remember thinking how out of date many of the comments seemed. Goals reached, extra effort by the kids in the last few weeks of school went unacknowledged in their report. It was too late to change each child’s report then have the updated comments proofed and checked.

Information cycles in the real world have sped up considerably in the last few years. Guidebooks are out of date the moment they go to the printer, newspapers update their websites after the morning edition. Yet in schools our information cycles stare from another time.

Which is where the problem lies.

Like many teachers I operate in two eras of communication. I’m still creating the mass produced, lengthy, periodic, just in case communication from the industrial age while at the same time attempting to create responsive, timely, brief and personalized communications that are characteristic of the digital era.

I’m sure there will come a day when the time consuming process of creating industrial communication in schools will come to an end. However despite the technology already being here, communication systems for educators still aren’t up to scratch. I’ve yet to find a learning management system that does exactly what I need it to do.

The closest I’ve come is doctopus with the goobric extension which enables me to quickly push out content to kids using google apps for education. The students can share their content with others, I can give personalized feedback to each child yet still maintain an overview of where the class is at. It’s personalized to me as a teacher and to each of the kids.

However parents are the missing component from this ecosystem unless the child or I share with mum and dad. In the past I’ve subscribed parents to their child’s blog as a way for home to get automatic updates without adding to my workload.

And that’s the key, automation and mobility. Technology should make communication for teachers more timely and effective. It should not add to our workload through needless logins, cutting and pasting information between windows and terrible user interfaces.

However most learning management tools require teachers to do just that.

I often joke that any learning management system without an iOS app is dead to me.

Instead of turning somersaults to make bad information systems work we need to be more demanding in our technological needs. Not just for own sanity but for the experience of our students and their families.

In an era where an app on my phone can push out personalized, relevant announcements faster than the airport departure board, we need to rethink what effective communication looks like in schools.

And it shouldn’t involve anyone needing to login into a browser to look for their communication.

It should just be there just when we need it.

PostScript. The flight to Chicago was accompanied with a midair proposal that even had the cynic in 18F smiling. Despite all the advances in technology there is some communication best done in person.

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