Part 2: Technology and Time Difference

TOS students celebrating their first place win in Olympia Athletics, but their joy is not dissimilar to our joy in finding solutions to our technology issues.
In my last Global CXN post (click here to read Part 1), I talked about how our group started and the initial “getting to know you” stage of the interactions. Once students learned a little about each other and found a common project to undertake, work got underway and students have enjoyed their collaboration. However, getting them on a reliable, functional, collaboration-friendly platform has been a hit-and-miss operation for Vietnam GCXN facilitator Daniel Rymer and me. While we have most of the kinks ironed out now, it was off to a dubious start three months ago.

When we first started in September, I knew getting our students on a platform that encouraged discussion and collaboration was going to be a challenge. Not only were we facing a 12 hour time difference that could stymie any sort of real communication, but also The Olympia Schools is a Google platform school, whereas La Porte ISD is an Office 365 school. My school district blocks all things Google except for Google Search and previous requests to unblock Google have always been met with rejection. Too, with Facebook and other social media sites blocked at my school, finding a moderate social media site that would work was becoming a daunting quest. Finally, I lighted on Edmodo, an education-based platform that allowed teachers to create classrooms and communities that would encourage collaboration among students and with teachers. Students in my district could access the site while on the school network, and, better yet, Edmodo had an app students could download on their smartphones to stay connected even when they weren’t at school.

Rymer and I created a GCXN group in Edmodo, added students to our classes, and introduced our students to each other. A little shy at first and awfully formal, our students began conversing. Rymer started them off initially with a post about the unconventional foods available in Vietnam, and it wasn’t long before students were posting pictures of their favorite foods, what they were currently eating, gushing about their favorite kinds of food, and in general making everyone hungry. As students became more comfortable sharing their worlds with each other, the conversations soon turned to their daily lives, their school work, after-school activities, and only occasional discussions about the novel both groups were reading, Things Fall Apart.

Edmodo was a promising platform for us. Rymer and I were able to post videos and essential questions for students to respond online. We could create folders for students to access, and we were able to pin assignments to the top of the forum for students to see when they logged in. However, several difficulties were becoming quite apparent. First, the more students interacted, the more unwieldy the conversation threads were becoming. With no way to tag or categorize discussions (I even emailed the Edmodo support team to see if they could add it), students were having to scroll through pages of discussion to find what they were looking for. Added to that disadvantage was the problem that most US students were using the mobile app on their phones, which didn’t show pinned posts at the top, and oftentimes assignments or essential questions were being overlooked. Second, once students had decided they wanted to undertake the eBook project, document collaboration became a much greater concern. While Edmodo had a way for teachers to post assignments for students to work on, students did not have a way to post or share documents with one another. Moreover, while students could download a document from a folder, work on it, and re-upload it to Edmodo, the process was cumbersome and required quite a learning curve to make it work. Lastly, Edmodo didn’t really support real-time conversation chats or instant messaging, so students and facilitators alike were becoming frustrated with having to wait for responses from their US or Vietnamese counterparts.

After several discussions with Rymer, at the end of October, I approached our district admin and IT one more time about the possibility of unblocking Google. We were again met with denials (although my impassioned plea and 5 page rebuttal are still under consideration by central admin and the director of IT). I won’t pretend to completely understand the reason (it has something to do with the lack of security through webmail that Google utilizes), but we were able to score a modest immediate concession when my district agreed to unblock Dropbox for students. Thus, I was able to create a shared folder in Dropbox that our students on both sides of the globe could download and access. What made this feature even better was the little blue Dropbox ball icon on the side of each saved document that allowed Rymer and me to comment on student drafts, offer guidance for next steps, and give feedback to students who had questions. It also allowed students to collaborate on the same draft, as well as see previous versions of the document. Best of all, students could edit and change the document and simply hit save rather than download and re-upload each time they worked.

While that took care of the document collaboration issues we were having, and thus solved about 60% of our problems, real-time communication was still a stumbling block. Even though my district hadn’t (still hasn’t) [see update below] unblocked Google, Rymer and I decided to make the switch to Google Hangouts anyway. The US students use Hangouts from home through the mobile app and their personal PCs, which, all things considered, has turned out to be a reasonable solution. Rymer meets with all of his grade 10 X-cel students each day, whereas my seniors are spread out in different classes throughout the day. Getting all of my students together in one class isn’t possible, so we meet after school 3 days a week. However, considering the 13 hour time difference between us and Hanoi as a result of Daylight Savings Time, our after-school meetings aren’t conducive to instant messaging since it is 3:30am in Vietnam. Luckily, Rymer is able to set aside time each week during his X-cel class for students to talk via Hangouts. Usually this takes place between 7:00pm and 10:00pm CST, although I’ve seen my students stay online with their Vietnamese friends until 11:30pm at times and, despite our (ineffective) protests, students tend to send messages to each other when they are supposed to be paying attention in their other classes.

IMG_4982Ultimately, Hangouts has been a lifesaver for us since students are able to message each other in large group discussions, as well as join their teams in small group discussions to work on their assigned chapters. It also has been a wonderful tool for Rymer and me to collaborate and discuss project deadlines, students’ drafts, and next steps, as well as share best practices, teaching tips, lesson plan ideas, and in general, simply get to know one another as colleagues. We’ve even planned to have both of our AP English Literature students read the same novels in the spring and start a discussion group.

All-in-all, the technology and time difference battles have been challenging ones with many hurdles to overcome. We’ve faced sharks chewing on fiber optic cable in the ocean in Vietnam (true story), hurricanes and tornadoes flooding and damaging our school in Texas, and random wifi blackouts, all of which we have overcome with grace and dignity. Edmodo served us well to introduce students to each other, but we quickly outgrew it. And while we could still use a free cloud-based project management tool or calendar for students to document their own next steps and deadlines for themselves, between Dropbox and Hangouts, we’ve managed pretty well and our students’ project and friendships are blossoming.

UPDATE: After several weeks lobbying for access to Google Apps, we were notified this afternoon that the entire Google platform has been made available to the high school. Many thanks to Dr. Linda Wadleigh, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum; Mr. David Knowles, Executive Director of Secondary Education; and my campus administrators Mr. Todd Schoppe and Dr. Kade Griffin for your support and continued advocacy behind the scenes on behalf of our GCXN students’ project.