I had to miss class on Thursday for GAFE training, so I decided to try out a self-guided text exploration using Blendspace. The timing was perfect, as we are just finishing our novel study of Cry, The Beloved Country, and I wanted to give the kids a few more brief texts to consider before they compose their Moral Courage Essays.
Blendspace is a tool designed for flipped learning. The lesson creation platform is intuitive and really dynamic. Blendspace gives you the option to search the web (as well as YouTube, Flickr, OpenEd, and a few other Ed-related materials-sharing sites) from right inside the application. Materials that you find this way can simply be dragged into the lesson. (There is also the option to add a particular URL, or to drop in items from Dropbox or Google Drive). The materials you drag in become tiles in your lesson, and you can rearrange them in whatever order, and give them titles and descriptions. There is also a rich-text editor for creating content, as well as a simple option for creating multiple-choice quiz items at particular points in the lesson.
The experience for the student is even more streamlined. Because Blendspace has integrated Google account authorization, and because my kids all now have their own GAFE account, getting them all signed up and into their respective classes was a cinch. Once they access the lesson, they are presented with the set of lesson tiles you created. Clicking on the first tile (or the little ‘play’ button near the top of the lesson) shifts them into a lightbox that displays the content of the first tile. On the right side of the screen is an expandable window that, when opened, displays any content description you created as well as a comments box and any comments that have been made about that content by others.
I already knew what content I wanted to include in the lesson, so I simply located that content and dragged it into the appropriate tiles. I created a few rich-text tiles at particular points that contained pertinent quotes quotes that I wanted students to reflect on, and I used the content description feature to give the kids more direction about What to Write in the comments. I tweaked the lesson over the course of a couple days before going live with it, but the whole process (From Signup to Lesson) didn’t take more than 30 minutes, which is a pretty low learning curve.
It’s this comment feature that really got me fired up to try Blendspace, because I have been working like a dog to get my kids confident enough to share their ideas about texts within the classroom. They are more than happy to share ideas about themselves or the world around them, and some of them will wax philosophical given an open-ended question oriented toward their lives or interests, but getting them to address textual concerns in a way that is specific and concrete has been a real challenge. I thought perhaps the private/silent social space of the comment box might offer the students a chance to take risks that they wouldn’t otherwise take.
The comments feature worked great. I have already dealt with some cheating associated with the ease of sharing files in Google Docs, so I was worried that a comment feed might encourage a lowest common denominator effect, whereby the kids who comment earlier set the terms that later students just mimic or regurgitate. On the contrary, and with few exceptions, students seemed to be using the comments thread to do exactly as I had hoped they would do: engage head-on with the text that I had put in front of them. In fact, it seems in some places like having their classmate’s ideas in front of them posed a challenge to students to find something different to say.
The ability to see a lot of information about my students quickly was also a plus. For a given Blendspace class, I can at-a-glance listings for total number of likes, dislikes, comments, “help requests” (which is another feature that might be nice, especially when thinking about differentiation for struggling learners), as well as quizzes completed.
Each of these breaks out into information on a per-tile and per-student basis. For the lesson I created, which asked students to leave a comment on each tile, these views gave me a quick snapshot of where the class was in completing the Lesson. In a different situation, it would be easy to see who’s commenting on what, and what tiles are generating the most conversation.
The lesson I created was designed to expose the students to four new texts (a poem, a TEDTalk, a Podcast, and a YouTube Video), and because I wanted them to do some specific things with the texts (identify and analyze literary elements, record information for later use), I created a paper packet to accompany the Blendspace Lesson. Despite my dedication to being as paperless as possible, I decided to make the packet paper because its immersive environment is one of the beauties of Blendspace. I worried that pushing them into this space, and then asking them to move back and forth between tabs would defeat the purpose of the platform. In the future, I think I will use Blendspace more for first-exposure, sending the students home to work through the lesson and limiting the responses that I ask for to the comments stream within the platform. Then, we can use these comments in the classroom to identify areas of weakness and strength in their understanding.
I hope that Blendspace maintains its simplicity, both for teachers and for students, but I would like to see it improve integration with other websites. YouTube videos and Prezis seem to work really well, and Blendspace is able to pull some websites into the lightbox by framing them and adding scroll bars. However, most of the websites I tried to pull in (such as the “Stuff You Should Know” Podcast site) forced students to open the content in a new browser tab. Not the end of the world, but still destructive of the really great distraction-free environment of the platform itself.
I also hope for better integration with Google Drive. Right now, all documents are pulled into an embedded Office365 document, which for me meant wrecked formatting and no ability to collaboratively edit the document. I found a pretty simple workaround by embedding my Shared Document in <iframe> (which Blendspace supports for some sites), but I can’t see many of my colleagues going to the trouble to implement the hack, so native Google Drive integration would still be a plus.
Lastly, I am excited about the possibility of students creating Blendspace lessons themselves, and sharing and commenting on each others collected resources. I’ve already got some great ideas for this, and I’m sure you’ll read about them in a future post. All-in-all, Blendspace seems like a really great platform for getting all of the important materials and minds into a single space to be examined and discussed.