Hitting reset button on tech experiments

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ACHS science teacher adapts with innovative online classroom

By Meaghan Downs

Anderson County High School science teacher Scott Ellis loves video games.
Over the winter break Ellis said he nearly wore out his controller while attaining his kill death ratio.
He knows not every one of his chemistry students enjoys them.
Last trimester taught him that much, when students and parents alike freaked out over the stress of beginning the class with a zero, then pushing to achieve enough points to score an “A.”
Some students really loved creating anonymous usernames to compete to see who would land as the “high scorer” on the class “leaderboard.”
They weren’t the majority, Ellis said, but that doesn’t mean he won’t bring back the leaderboard later.
Maybe this time students will get a kick out of receiving a point badge for getting a high score on an online assignment, Ellis said in his empty classroom last Wednesday afternoon. He has yet to roll out the feature.
Ellis clicked on a link on his laptop to show a skull-and-crossbones digital sticker that would be automatically emailed to the student when he “killed it” on his homework.
Most of Ellis’ classroom experiments are in cyberspace, not the high school’s laboratory.
Integrating technology that’s even new to Ellis like trying to build a vehicle and drive it at the same time, he said.
“I like the technology,” he said. “I like what it can do for me and the kids.”
Ellis, who has been teaching high school science at Anderson for 13 out of 15 years he’s been in education, introduced “gamification” theories to his chemistry curriculum after attending an educational technology conference this past summer.
Ellis said he was inspired by a Montana high school teacher who successfully used elements of “gaming” in creating a sense of motivation and competition for his students.
So Ellis asked Bret Foster, chief technology officer for the district, to resurrect Moodle, an open-source content management system, to create a forum for his new virtual classroom.
Moodle hadn’t gone over well with teachers a few years prior, and was removed by Foster from the system because of its lack of use.
But Ellis knew he could use Moodle, and use it to show Anderson County students that technology was more than just social networking.  
“I have a lot of kids choosing not to do the work,” Ellis said. “That makes me question strategy, and what this has evolved to is an online environment.”
If students want a textbook, they can choose to check one out of the media center’s library.
If they want to submit a paper worksheet, they’ll have to request one.
Of course, Ellis is in the classroom to answer questions face-to-face.
“It’s still chemistry,” he said. “It’s what you make it. But I think the kids like the aspect to have their phones out, to do the work (during class.)”
Otherwise, everything’s is online, and Ellis said it’s important that students (and teachers) get on board with the “flipped” classroom style: a blend of the traditional classroom setting in conjunction with videos, online worksheets and even PowerPoint notes narrated by Ellis himself.
Instead of projecting the notes on the board in class, Ellis uses an external microphone, MacBook internal camera and a tablet to narrate the slides. He said his students enjoy it, but it’s extremely time-consuming for Ellis to produce.
He said he’s going to spend the upcoming summer break producing and stockpiling chemistry videos for next year’s students.
“I feel like I’m helping them by giving the exposure to an online environment,” Ellis said, mentioning the online system Blackboard as a common virtual learning tool used by universities and colleges. “That way, when they get to college, it’s not like, ‘I haven’t even seen this before.’”
He encourages students to bring headphones to class so that the competing noises from the videos students are required to watch don’t create chaos.
Ellis said he won’t use any online content that isn’t compatible with a mobile device.
That doesn’t mean Ellis’ classroom resembles row after row of silent, plugged-in students.
Many work quietly by themselves, bent over their smartphones, while other students consult one another in small groups. It’s created neat opportunities for students to assist their classmates, Ellis said.
Ellis even created a QR code — images scanned by a smartphone that directs the user to a separate web link — scavenger hunt. Students scanned a code from one classroom, answered the question and bonus question online, and their answer was the number of the next classroom and their next clue.
The autonomy of working online also gives the gift of choice to students, Ellis said.
His students can choose to re-take a quiz online or not. But the opportunity to improve is still there, as long as students are willing to do the work.
“They are the only stumbling block to themselves,” Ellis said, adding that his flipped classroom often challenges students with time management issues. “The choice is theirs. It’s right there for them.”
Several of Ellis’ junior chemistry students said they find the online coursework easier and wish more of their classes were online, notably math.
“You can move at your own pace,” junior Cassidy Conley said.
Senior chemistry student Ben Spear agreed.
“It’s easier to keep up with when you don’t have to keep up with worksheets,” he said.
The day’s online questions are available at 8 a.m. and students have until the next day at 8 a.m. to finish them. No one student gets the same questions; the website Ellis uses through Indiana University has a database of questions that are scrambled at random.
The database won’t accept wrong answers, so students can’t complete questions until they get them right.
Ellis can monitor who has completed the questions, but he can’t know who’s watched the videos and who hasn’t. He’ll evaluate students using quick quizzes to see if they’ve studied the material. If students are struggling, Ellis said he’s always available to give his help, just not in the form of traditional lecture.
“They’re interacting with me,” he said. “It’s like if I’d be in their house, helping them with their homework.”
But formal exams and tests are still completed using paper and pencil, Ellis said, especially since he knows he would hate it if technology were to fail in the middle of an exam.
Online classrooms aren’t going away, Ellis said. And the more teachers can become comfortable with the tools, the easier it’ll be for both them, and those they’re teaching.
Chemistry isn’t going to change, he said, but the way students learn about chemistry is.
“(Students are) getting ready to go into a world of it,” Ellis said. “You know how dry chemistry is. I’m trying to put my spin on it.”