Diary of an eLearner

Top 3 Science Apps You Must Use This Year

So it’s already September 5th, and we’re all beginning to get back into the rhythm of classes once again. Since STEM was such a hot topic last year, and most if not all educational reformists were discussing the state of science and technology in our school systems, I thought it would be a good time to start promoting some very valuable tools that you can incorporate into your lectures. It never hurts to start the year on a good foot! Here are my top three science apps and the reasons why I think you should be using them with your students:

1. Celestia

If by any chance you have a young daughter at home, you’re first thought about this app might be princess celestia. (It might just be a sign that I’ve seen far too many My Little Pony episodes.) The Celestia that I’m referring to is a real-time, 3D visualization of space app. It’s available for both the Windows and Mac operating systems. A large group of worldwide volunteers are constantly feeding new data into the Celestia system, making sure that the information presented is as up-to-date as possible. I love how easily it brings to life the actual orbital movements of the planets. A must have for visual learners.

2. Solve the Outbreak

Solve the Outbreak is a free iPad app created by the folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s a perfect way to introduce the topic of the ebola outbreak that is currently occurring in West Africa. The students will be prompted to research three different epidemics. They will have access to background information, specific data on the region in question and other forms of clues. The student takes the role of a medical professional and must decide on the best possible solution for stopping the spread of the epidemic. Here is some actual gameplay footage from the app:

3. Mahjong Chem

This last suggestion is aimed at all those chemistry teachers whose students are having trouble memorizing or just understanding the periodic table of elements. Mahjong Chem, available for both the iPad and iPhone, combines the periodic table with the game of Mahjong. We can thank the Chemistry Department at Stetson University for this great learning game. Students will learn how to match elemental names to symbols, how to name polyatomic ions, how to assign the correct oxidation numbers and learn electronic configurations. If your students finish their class work early, make sure they take out their phones and play this great game.

If you have any science apps that you think are great, please let me know by posting it in the comments box below!

Lost & the Secret to Exciting Teaching Through Cliffhangers

My wife and I have recently started watching Lost, which first aired in 2004 and lasted for 6 seasons. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix, we’re able to enjoy this great show that had passed us by on its original run. This post has nothing to do with some of the deep questions that the show brings up, even though I’m really tempted to do a post on the philosophical aspect of the show. This post is on the important use of cliffhangers in teaching. On a side note, any teacher looking to introduce some philosophy into their lessons should consider watching the show. Also, you should definitely check out the book Philosophy For Beginners by Richard Osborne. It’s done in a comic book style, and covers all the major philosophers, from the Presocratics to the Existentialists. What I want to talk about is the way the show is structured, and how that recipe can be applied to your lesson plans.

In case you haven’t seen Lost, the premise of the show surrounds a group of people whose plane has crashed on an exotic island. It is soon apparent to them that this is no ordinary island, but one filled with mysteries and a large black smoke monster. Yeah, I know, so cool! The writing of the show is the real star. It’s written in a way that ensures the viewer comes back for more, and that’s the idea I want to focus on. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger, and of course every season ends on a major cliffhanger. It’s one of those shows that’s difficult or impossible to just watch one episode at a time because you are left needing to know what happens next. This formula produces not just entertaining television, but it can also be used to produce entertaining and engaging lessons.

What I’m advising may not work for every subject, I’ll admit it, but I think that with the right adjustments it can be used to promote student motivation. I’ve taught many different subjects, from English to world religions and even to an introductory psychology course, but my initial teacher training was in history. Like many of you, I was drawn to my teachable subject because I had excellent teachers in that subject when I was a student. All my favourite history teachers approached their classes as a long story, and it struck a chord with me. I took that into all my very own history classes. I built a cliffhanger into the end of every lesson, and a hook into the following lesson that would remind my students of the story and where we left off. This technique not only ignites my students’ passion for history, but it brings the historical people and their stories alive. The worst history teachers are those that approach it as taking a tour of a museum – students don’t want to visit history behind glass barriers, they want to live it for themselves.

Let’s look at a specific example that you can use in your classroom. Pretend that you are teaching your students about Napoleon Bonaparte, and you have just reached the part of the story where he has been forced to abdicate and go into exile on the island of Elba. Now that sounds like it would make a great cliffhanger, so I would build it into the end of one of the lessons. Some of you younger teachers might be concerned about time management, but I assure you that it’s a skill that every teacher can develop through practice. Just make sure that you are coming to class with an excellent bag of bonus material, just in case your lesson runs short and you don’t want to start the following lesson early. An easy solution is to have a wealth of video and audio clips ready. With tools like Google Drive, it’s become very easy to save all this material to one location.

Now back to Napoleon! Ok, so I would aim to end the lesson with Napoleon’s  exile to Elba. But I wouldn’t just leave it there. I would throw it back to my students,  and ask them “What would you do if you were Napoleon?” If they are having a  hard time placing themselves in the situation, then give them options such as  “Would you accept your fate and live out the rest of your days on that Italian island?” or “Would you secretly try to gather your forces in an attempt to retake power and control of France?” Make them realize that these historic figures were real people like us, and they had to decide what to do in the given situation. Many of them will have very interesting ideas and they’ll want to know what the real Napoleon did, but don’t answer them! Leave them on a cliffhanger. Over time your students will grow to love this exciting cliffhangers, and they’ll be looking forward to the next class in order to see what happens next!


Hectic, frantic, absolutely exciting, any one of these descriptions would be perfect for describing this past month. Besides dealing with the end of the school year, and being swamped with exam corrections and entering end-of-term marks, there was the stress of completing my summer semester at GW. This semester, which runs on a condensed 6-week schedule, I enrolled in two elective classes: EDUC 6421 – Critical Issues in Distance Education & EDUC 6426 – Computer Interface Design for Learning. But I’m going to write about these two courses during the next post, because for now I want to focus on two huge changes in my life: the birth of my beautiful new daughter Nadia, and the start of an exciting new career!

Picture this: the early morning hours of July 4th, I’m struggling to wake up by drinking my ritual cup of coffee and at the same time trying to mentally prepare for the long exam that was just about to start. You see, that morning I was scheduled to write my 3-hour comprehensive exam, which is the culminating task for completing the ETL masters at GW. Originally I was hoping to write this exam the following November, but life threw me a curve ball. A few weeks prior to July 4th, I was offered a position at Lyndon State College in the beautiful state of Vermont. Starting in August, I will be the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. It’s everything that I have been working for these past two years! The snag, every aspect of my masters needed to be completed before the start date of August 4th, in order to obtain my visa. This meant I needed to wrap up the end of the school year at Herzliah HS, finish my two summer courses with GW, and study for this comp exam. Ok, a little crazy I’ll admit, but doable. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that my wife was also pregnant and the due date was July 9th!

As the days went by, and the pile of work subsided, I began to feel more confident. My initial terror was that my wife would go into labor either right before, or during my exam. This nightmarish thought pestered me like an annoying fly, it actually became very difficult to concentrate on my studies. But as the date drew closer, it really seemed as though I was in the clear. Finally the night of July 3rd had come. I was feeling confident with the material, and was mentally prepared to take the exam the following morning. I was scheduled to proctor it through McGill University, which is literally a 5-minute walk from our house. I was thrilled! When I first began the ETL program, I was unsure of whether or not I would be able to balance a full-time teaching gig, with being a full-time graduate student, on top of raising my beautiful 3-year-old daughter Amélie. I took it all in baby steps, and pushed through the really busy periods. Now it looked like I was about to complete the masters, with the added bonus of having a new ID position right out of the gate. Very happy man here!

I’m sitting on the couch, coffee mug in hand, triple-checking that I had everything prepared to go write the exam, when my wife slowly walks into the living room. She was crying, and the first thought that went through my mind was “Oh God, who died?”. Thankfully it wasn’t that. She was upset that I would have to miss my exam, the reason of course was that she had started to go into labor. In the end everything worked out perfectly: baby Nadia was born bright-eyed and healthy, mom made a speedy recovery, and I was able to reschedule the exam within the time limit for the visa (big thanks to professor Bill Robie!)

For now, I’m getting ready for the big move down to Vermont. In less than one week I will be living amongst the gorgeous wilderness of the Northeast Kingdom, enjoying the outdoors as much as I possibly can, and beginning my new instructional design position at Lyndon State. These last two years have gone by so fast. The ETL program was very demanding, especially having completed it in that short time span, but I absolutely loved it. It has given me the skills I need in order to succeed in the ID world, and I’m looking forward to applying everything I have studied in my new position. I will continue to document my instructional design/e-learning growth here on my blog, so please continue to follow along!

The Importance of Accreditation for Distance Education

I was recently asked to respond to the following question in one of my graduate classes:

What are some issues involving distance education that should be the focus of research? Why is this issue(s) important?

I answered the following, and wanted to share my response with you on my blog. I hope you enjoy. Like with all of my posts, I welcome comments, especially those that spark interesting dialogue.

I’m a huge supporter of distance education, but that doesn’t mean that it’s flawless or without any drawbacks. Some of the major ones that come to mind include ensuring a high quality of instruction, improper use of educational technology by both the instructors and students, technical problems and inadequate training for the technicians that help run the courses. I’m not going to discuss any of these really important issues right now, even though I believe that each of them requires some reflective thought. Instead, I want to discuss the issue which concerned me the most prior to enrolling in the ETL program at GWU, and that is the issue of accreditation or public opinion.

Hopefully we all enroll in a higher education program in order to grow as a person and a learner, but we still want to know that the degree we are working hard to obtain will open some professional doors for us. Basically, we want to know that our degrees hold the same amount of weight as those in a traditional face-to-face school. However this is not always the case. Many online degrees hold no professional or academic accreditation, and potential future employers do not always view them in a positive light. Two things need to occur in order to solve this issue: firstly, students need to do their due diligence prior to enrolling in an online program, and secondly, colleges and universities offering online degrees must strive to earn accreditation for their courses.

Educational accreditation is similar to a quality of assurance stamp on your degree or certificate. In order to obtain it schools must be evaluated by an external body in order to ensure that the program being offered meets or exceeds all the necessary criteria. For institutions of higher learning, these accreditation commissions are done through a peer review process. Accrediting organizations must first be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) before they can begin evaluating schools. There are currently 52 recognized accrediting bodies in the US, including:

Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)
Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges of Technology (ACCSCT)
Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
Council on Occupational Education (COE)

Students must research any programs they are interested in taking to see if they have received any of these accreditations. If the program hasn’t, then they risk investing both time and money into a degree or certificate that may not hold any water in the professional world. Schools hoping to grow their distance education programs need to get accredited as soon as possible, and once accredited they need to work on keeping it.

I want to end by referring to a report conducted by the Board of Directors of The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). The report is titled Quality Issues in Distance Education, acknowledges that many schools are starting their own distance learning programs because of the financial possibilities they bring, but the priority must always be on the quality of learning for the student.

Positive economic outcomes are unlikely to occur quickly, and may not occur at all. Schools are advised to enter distance learning for reasons other than a search for financial windfall. Program quality, unique program attributes and program access are more legitimate reasons. (Quality Issues in Distance Learning)

If you are interested in further exploring the issue of accreditation for online and distance programs, then I recommend that you read the following two reports. Much of what I referenced in this post came from both reports.


The 7 Best Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers

The term Web 2.0 describes websites that go beyond the basic static sites that solely provide some form of information for the user. These stationary sites also go by the term Web 1.0. In web 2.0 sites, the user takes on an active role and engages with either the material or other users. The best example I can think of to show the difference between web 1.0 and web 2.0 is the Encyclopedia Britannica site and Wikipedia; Britannica provides a fixed page where the user takes on an inactive role, while Wikipedia provides the same type of information, but it allows the user to take an active role by allowing them the ability to edit and add their own content to the site. The terms Semantic Web or Web 3.0 refers to the future of web sites. The future lies in sites that take your input and provide a sort of service for you. Users will be able to type “I want to see a really good action movie” into their browser, and the web will instantly provide the user with film titles, movie theatre locations and times, and recent reviews for each film. The web will do the work.

If you are looking for further information on the differences between web 2.0 and web 3.0 sites, then you can read my April 10th, 2013 post Web 2.0 vs. Web 3.0 – What Really is the Difference?

For now I want to review my favourite 7 web 2.0 tools for teachers and educators.

I. Evernote – I was a late comer to Evernote, and since I’ve started using it I now know I can never go back. For those of you that don’t know, Evernote is an amazing tool for anyone that takes lots of notes or archives many links and resources, basically any teacher! I have a notebook for all of my classes, and within them I have sections for activities, assignments, videos and power points. As a graduate student, I use it to organize all my references for my research papers. And it’s a must have for students as well, especially those who have poor organizational skills.

II. Dropbox – Dropbox is a great way to back up all your precious teaching material on the cloud. And once it’s uploaded you can always have remote access to it. Some teachers use it as a way to go paperless by getting their students to submit all their work through it. You can share folders with your students, that way you know they have complete access to all your lecture notes, power point presentations and any other videos or files you want them to have.

III. Edmodo – It’s known as the Facebook for Schools, and I would say with just cause. Edmodo is a social learning platform that connects teachers with their students. I like to see it as a junior LMS, similar to Canvas or Moodle, but aimed at the high school level. You can post lecture notes, assignments, videos, post quizzes, create a calendar of events and run synchronous and asynchronous communication. What I love about Edmodo is that it teachers students how to be successful online learners, which is an important skill in todays world.

IV. Google Drive – This file storage service provided by Google is am excellent way to backup your files on the cloud, while offering other useful options such as peer-to-peer file sharing and collaborative editing. Through Google Drive you can access Google Docs, an online office suite that combines Google’s Writely and Spreadsheets.

V. Blogger – Blogging is the best way to get your students writing. I’ve been using blogging assignments in my English classes for the past several years, and I’ve received nothing but positive feedback. The important thing to remember is to let your students write about their passions – if they are not passionate about what their writing, then they won’t write it. I’m a big WordPress fan, but it’s too complicated a platform for younger students, especially if it’s their first voyage into blogging. Blogger is a must try for any language arts teacher!

VI. Skype – Many people seemed surprised when I tell them how great a tool Skype is for the classroom, but it really is. It’s a free way to establish video communication with anybody around the world. Create a virtual pen pal program in your class, or use it to run collaborative assignments with classes from another school. It’s a simple way to bring guest speakers into the class. My school’s librarian uses it to connect with authors – great to see the kids have a Q&A session with the author of the book they’re reading in class.

VII. YouTube – I know most people only use YouTube to catch up on funny viral videos or when they have 5 minutes of free time, but it really could be used for so much more. It’s the best place to start for any teacher wanting to include more video in their lessons. They even now have a YouTube channel dedicated to learning: YouTube EDU. Here you can find amazing lectures from top universities and ideas for new lesson plans. This way you also ensure not stumbling upon any unwanted videos.



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