Elements of Change – My COETAIL Final Project

Earlier in the semester, as I was brainstorming ideas of what my COETAIL final project would look like, I put myself in my students’ shoes, and thought about what changes I could make to the course to help make understanding of chemistry easier for my students.  IB Chemistry is a challenging course for students, and there are many abstract concepts that not only need to be understood, but also applied directly to laboratory investigations.  

What new approaches could I integrate into my teaching to help increase student learning, and what digital resources could I use to accomplish this goal?

I decided to focus on the variety of Google Apps that I already have available to me as an educator, and designed a plan for how I could implement some of them in a more integrated fashion.  The goal was to enhance the course experience for my students, and most importantly, help them more easily understand the science of chemistry. There are many Google Apps available to educators, but the tools I chose to focus on included Google Sites, Sheets, Forms, Classroom, and Cardboard.  Cardboard was used for the implementation of augmented and virtual reality technology into my “Bonding” and “Organic Chemistry” units as an enhancement of some of the topics covered.

The results of this project can be understood from watching the video below, but I have also included below a further discussion of each of the elements of the project, if you would like more information about that particular tool.

(I would like to thank Tanya Komandt, our digital coach, for helping me put this together by filming, taking photos, and being a fantastic resource throughout this project.)

Google Sites

The ability for students to be able to access course information and content when outside of school is a crucial necessity, especially for IB Diploma Program students.  I have worked with Moodle and Canvas in the past, and had found both of them very suitable for building course sites where students could access notes, instructional videos, course calendars, and other helpful resources. These were the places where my courses “lived” outside of class meeting times.  

As mentioned in an earlier post, my current school uses Managebac to house our school’s curriculum, but I (and students) have found that it is not an ideal tool for housing day-to-day course materials, resources, and content.  I decided to use Google Sites to build a digital environment where my students could access resources, videos, practice assignments, and other related material in a quick and easy way. There existed an old Google Site for the course (you can see a few shots of it in the video, at about the three minute mark), built before my arrival at my school, but it contained broken links, unfinished sections, and an incomplete layout.  Using Google’s newer format for building sites, I started putting a new one together.

In terms of organizing the site, I divided each of the major units in the IB DP Chemistry curriculum into separate sections.  I also created a page for general course documents, and a page focused on laboratory skills.  Each topic page contained learning outcomes, links to resources such as presentations/videos, practice assignments and answer keys, and laboratory experiments applicable to that unit.  

Students have been using the website since the beginning of the school year, and I have been building it out unit-by-unit in my spare time as the semester has progressed.  After a few months of using the site, I was very curious to learn what students really thought of it, so I sent a survey (using Google Forms) to my four IB DP Chemistry classes, asking them a number of questions regarding the website.  

Based on student feedback collected from the website survey, I have a number of things to change in the new semester to help improve the student experience of my site.  

  1. First, is the rearrangement of each topic section to shift the “Resources” section that contains the videos down to the bottom of the page.  
  2. I also want to consolidate the list of video resources for each unit into one YouTube playlist, rather than displaying the array of videos at once.  (You can see this in the video at minute four.) This will hopefully help clear up the look of each unit page.
  3. I would also like to split each unit into separate Standard Level and Higher Level material.  (For readers not familiar with the IB Diploma Program, I won’t go into detail here about the difference between the two levels).  As I currently teach both Higher and Standard Level students in the same class, I would like to provide them with an easily identifiable way to differentiate what resources connect with which topics.  

Google Forms

I have also been using Google Forms on a more frequent basis in several ways this school year. Mostly I have used it to solicit student feedback on aspects of the course, including the course website (discussed in the section above), laboratory experiences, application of technology, and instructional methods. I don’t collect email addresses from participants, meaning that the feedback in anonymous. I believe this particular aspect is important, to help ensure the honesty on the responses.  The feedback I have received has been extremely valuable, and has given me insight into how my students are experiencing my classes, and how they are engaging with the course material.  

Although this is not featured in the video, I have also used Forms to create quizzes, which I put together to send out to students.  I make these quizzes formative, so that they are used as helpful diagnostic tools to give me (and them) a general idea of how well they understand some of the core concepts covered in recent lessons.  Here is an example of a quiz I made recently for my Grade 12 Organic Chemistry Unit.  

Google Sheets

I am finding Google Sheets ideal for students to collect, organize, and share data collected in the laboratory.  The main advantage of Sheets is that because it is cloud-based, students working as a group can access and analyze data collaboratively together on the same document. In the video, one of my students explains how he used Google Sheets to analyze data collected in a recent laboratory activity.  (Time: 6:30)

I have also been using Sheets to help organize the feedback I’m receiving from my Forms surveys, as well as the formative assessment feedback from the quizzes I send out.  

Google Classroom

I have found Google Classroom to be limiting in the number of features that it has, but have also found an important role for it in my approach to teaching this year.  I do find it limiting in that I do not think it is a suitable choice for hosting important course content. This is mostly due to the limitation of the layout of Classroom, which resembles an ever-growing digital scroll of posts as you add announcements and assignments.  But I have found a niche roll for Classroom in my approach to teaching, in the form of sharing quick links and announcements with students.

I have begun using Google Classroom to push out announcements, links to key documents, links to feedback forms, and course reminders for all of my classes. (Time: 5:27) I have also been using it to share links to news articles, and other extension materials for my students.  Classroom has proved to be an easy to use tool that has been perfect for this use.

Augmented and Virtual Reality with Google Cardboard

I have been very interested in learning how Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technology can be applied to the classroom.  I have written about it in a previous post, and tend to tweet about it fairly often. I used this semester to finally put these technologies into action in my classroom, and see what the results might be.

One of the key applications of these two technologies for the chemistry classroom is the ability to display atomic and molecular structures in three dimensions. Students many times find it difficult to abstractly conceptualize molecules in three dimensions, however, this skill is crucial for a chemist, because it allows for the prediction and understanding of many of the chemical and physical properties of that substance.  AR and VR technology can help alleviate this difficulty by allowing students to really “see” the structures in three dimensions right in front of them.

Cardboard and Benzene

(Augmented Reality view of a benzene molecule through Google Cardboard, using the AR/VR Molecule Editor app.)

There were two units this semester in which the application of this technology made sense – my grade 11 “Bonding” unit, and my grade 12 “Organic Chemistry” unit.  Successful mastery of the course material in each of these units relies on a strong understanding of the three-dimensional structure of atoms and molecules.  

I downloaded a number AR/VR chemistry apps that aligned well to the curriculum of each of these units, and designed lessons for my classes that incorporated these apps into the activities.  Students used Google Cardboard or VR-Pro headsets to view the AR/VR aspects of the lessons. The specific apps that I have used directly in the classroom so far are the AR/VR Molecule Editor, and Learning Carbons VR.

A VR demo video of the AR/VR Molecule Editor app is shown below:

At the outset, I expected students to enjoy the AR/VR experience, but their reactions to these lessons far exceeded my expectations.  For many of my students, this was the first time they had used AR/VR technology directly in a classroom setting, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.  There is no doubt in my mind that this technology did indeed help them to better understand the core ideas about molecular shapes.

In Summary

Two of the most important outcomes of the COETAIL program for me have been the building of a much stronger global PLN, and the focus on direct application of digital tools in the classroom.  In the past, I have been held back from trying new approaches or technologies because I was approaching their implementation with a perfectionist mindset. However, with a robust PLN, I can now learn more easily from the experience of others, ask questions, gain insights, and actually put into practice meaningful changes that enhance student learning. I have learned to adopt a more action-oriented mindset regarding the implementation of new approaches, and feel more confident that I am able to manage the inevitable bumps along the way.  

Were there a few tech hiccups in the AR/VR lessons?  Yes, there were, but they were also easily addressed, and ultimately fixed.  Is my website perfect, and completely built? Not yet, but I am now continually working on it and making improvements to it. I have also found the process of building it to be creatively rewarding. In this short blog post, Seth Godin weighs in on perfectionism, and it is something I read over several times in recent months.

For me, the real motivation driving the implementation of these new approaches has been the results that I have witnessed in the classroom. Going forward, I am planning on continuing the construction and improvement of the IB Chemistry Course Website, as well as achieve a deeper level of integration of the other G-suite tools that I use.  I am actively researching and experimenting with AR and VR technology, and further looking for was in which they can be applied to enhance the understanding of chemical principles.

If you have any thoughts, tips, strategies, or other technologies you would like to share with me, please post a comment below.  I am also interested in any feedback you have regarding my COETAIL project. What next steps might you suggest I take to continue?  

Please stay tuned for further blog posts. COETAIL might be completed for me, but I am aiming to continue sharing my thoughts and experiences in implementing educational technology here.  Thank you for reading and for your feedback!

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