For Kelvin Dueck, a Math and Science teacher from the town of Pitt Meadows in Canada, using OneNote 2010 on his Windows Tablet PC has turned out to be one of the best-ever teaching solutions he could have hoped for — both inside and outside of his classroom.
Watch our video to meet Kelvin and his students.
We were introduced to Kelvin quite by chance. Towards the end of last year, he sent a spontaneous letter to the blog maintained by my colleague John Guin, who works on the OneNote Test team. In his letter, Kelvin chronicled in great detail how he had stumbled upon a way of digitizing all of his lesson plans, making them available as an after-school teaching tool, and how his techniques to create and share these materials had begun to dramatically help many of his students.
We liked Kelvin’s letter so much that, at the beginning of this year, my colleague Jennifer Bost (the editor of our popular Office in Education blog) contacted Kelvin to see if he might be willing to tell us more about his use of OneNote in the classroom and how he had integrated it with various other technologies. When Kelvin agreed to meet with us, we immediately looked at ways to make it happen.
Back to school we go!
As professional writers, Jennifer and I are both such ardent fans of OneNote that we really wanted to learn more about Kelvin’s use of the software as a teaching tool. We decided to take a road trip to Canada to meet up with Kelvin and learn more about his story.
We weren’t at all sure what to expect from this little adventure, but we decided to bring along our cameras, just in case we felt that the story was worth sharing visually. (Watch our video to see the result for yourself.) On a sunny day in May, Jennifer and I loaded up her car and headed for British Columbia.
Located near the great city of Vancouver, Pitt Meadows is home to Pitt Meadows Secondary School (École Secondaire Pitt Meadows), where Kelvin completed his student teaching practicum in 1997 and was hired as a full-time teacher in 1998. Few careers begin easily, but Kelvin remembers getting some early help from a friendly colleague in those days. “When I started teaching here, the best Physics teacher at the time in our district was taking a break from Physics 12 that year, and he gave me all of his binders and tests and lessons and reviews.”
As Jennifer and I glanced at the collections of bound papers that are still sitting on the shelves in Kelvin’s classroom, he continued: “It was such a time-saver for me to only [have to] prep lessons. That’s where initially my lights went on, where I already started to see — just in terms of static content — what I could do to share with students and colleagues.”
Does technology belong in the classroom?
When Kelvin initially began his teaching career at Pitt Meadows Secondary, there was a “No Walkmans” policy at the school (we call them iPods now, but you get the idea). Even today, when some teachers may still feel at odds with or even adversarial about technology in the classroom, Kelvin takes the issue in stride and sees it simply as a sign of a changing social structure.
“I’ve noticed that kids are comfortable with technology,” he said. “It’s interesting; they have large gaps sometimes in their use of technology. You’ll still see kids that don’t have an email address, for example. The big one is how media and music have affected them in terms of technology. I think these kids are pretty big consumers of music and media, so my thinking is I’d like to see if we can take some advantage of that.”
He hasn’t seen too many laptops brought into his classroom, but since the school upgraded its wireless network about a year ago, they’re starting to appear more and more. Using a computer for schoolwork can yield valuable results, of course, but what about music and media? We asked Kelvin if he’d permit a student to bring a mobile device to class. “Absolutely!” he exclaimed. “My classroom rule is: ‘Act like an adult.’ The kids know to give me their full attention if they come to talk to me and want my full attention. I think that’s good modeling.”
“I’ve had several positive examples of students that I know who learned far better by shutting out everything else and immersing themselves in the material,” Kelvin continued. “If I provide an environment where students understand the expectations, I think it’s better to give them the freedom to figure out what works best for them. There are lots of kids who, if you’ll let them, will put on their headphones because it lets them shut out distractions. They can really benefit from that.”
Old meets new in teaching styles
“I’m a fairly traditional-style teacher,” explained Kelvin. “Most of my classes would be considered somewhat lecture-based, or what we call ‘chalk and talk’ — a fairly effective way to teach and one that I think I’m pretty good at. In my first couple of years, I was primarily a chalkboard/whiteboard teacher.”
As we looked around Kelvin’s classroom, it became clear to us how much of a role the whiteboard used to play here. It still covered the span of nearly the entire wall behind his desk, though it was demoted to a holding place for a few random scribbles, some school posters, and a geeky version of the residing teacher’s mantra on Physics.
Unlike many colleagues in his profession, Kelvin explained to us why he never migrated to using a traditional overhead projector as a teaching tool in his classroom. “As a ‘lefty’ (left-handed) teacher, I found overheads really hard to use. My whole wrist would be smeared with felt and I would have been smudging what I was writing.”
There seemed to be no real alternative to the whiteboard until Kelvin began to teach Calculus and attended a seminar that same year at the University of Victoria. The teacher facilitating the seminar used a Windows-based Tablet PC in class. Kelvin remembers his excitement. “Five minutes [into the seminar], I went ‘Oh! There’s my solution to the overhead problem. And there’s more than one color. And I could save stuff. And that means I can edit stuff. And then I can share stuff with my colleagues!'” On his way back home that summer, Kelvin had already decided to shop for a Tablet PC and purchased a Gateway model in the fall of that same year.
OneNote on a Tablet PC
Upon first bringing his Tablet PC to his classes, the benefits were immediately apparent to Kelvin. Instead of having to repeatedly turn his back to his students while writing things on the whiteboard, he could now better engage with his students. By positioning the Tablet PC in a docking station on his desk and digitally projecting onto the screen behind him, Kelvin now enjoyed a closer connection with all of his students by being able to maintain frequent eye contact and making his students feel more included. In addition, he could get through much more material than before, mainly because the students could read and copy down what he was writing while he was doing it, instead of having to wait until he was done covering up the lesson while writing.
While Kelvin was facilitating a seminar at the British Columbia Math Teacher’s Convention about using Windows Tablet PCs in education, it was a fellow teacher from Riverside Secondary School in the nearby town of Port Coquitlam who first introduced him to Microsoft OneNote. Another light went on for Kelvin, as he realized what this software could do for him.
“Organizing things in notebooks and sections — that’s a virtual binder!” he exclaimed. “But this would be a binder that was editable and changeable and dynamic and shareable and [it has] colors and [it’s] emailable… oooh!” Soon after his colleague’s demonstration, Kelvin purchased a copy of OneNote 2007 and installed it on his Tablet PC. When we met up with him in his classroom on that day in May, he had replaced his Gateway Tablet PC with a newer Hewlett Packard model and he had since upgraded to OneNote 2010. “I haven’t looked back ever since,” said Kelvin about OneNote. “It’s such a terrific product!”
Since those early days, Kelvin has completely integrated OneNote into his classroom routine. For most of his classes, OneNote on his Tablet PC serves as the ultimate canvas onto which he can type, draw, sketch, scribble, and share anything with his students that he could share on a typical computer.
During class, Kelvin toggles OneNote’s full-screen view (F11) to strip away the user interface so that students see only what they need to see as part of the lesson. In-between classes, he toggles the OneNote interface back on to navigate to his next lesson plans in the various digital notebooks that he’s already prepared. Unlike with paper, he can freely mark up these digital materials during class and then simply revert to a clean version again afterwards.
Kelvin uses OneNote’s handy screen clipping feature to capture the answers to problems that his Math and Physics students need help with during class and he then incorporates these answers right into his class notes with no additional work or effort. Everything that Kelvin creates in OneNote can be reused and shared at any time.
With OneNote, nerdy tangents are welcome
Teaching with OneNote yields Kelvin another really important benefit. “I can now go off on what I like to call ‘nerdy tangents’ and still come back to the main material.” OneNote lets him do that sort of thing easily, especially when a student asks a really great question — one that perhaps doesn’t quite fit into the lesson, but one that is well worth exploring and answering.
In the old days, Kelvin would have had to first erase parts (or all) of the whiteboard to work out a math problem on the side. Had he used an overhead projector, he would have needed to scroll seemingly forever to get to a clean part of the overhead transparency and then scroll all the way back to the lesson. With OneNote on his Tablet PC, Kelvin can simply open up a fresh page and then explore a student’s question. We witnessed him doing this several times during the day we spent at his school. Instead of feeling like a jarring interruption, the way the old teaching methods might have, Kelvin’s “nerdy tangents” instantly became a spontaneous but completely natural part of the curriculum that never made students feel like their questions were out of place.
Unlike other productivity tools, OneNote was designed to automatically and continuously save its content without user intervention. This frees up Kelvin from worrying about saving and managing computer files and possibly overwriting any existing material with these temporary creations. Because OneNote reliably manages all of his content for him, he can trust that he’ll have an instant and guaranteed record of any on-the-spot problem solving while working through such items in the moment. Later, if he chooses, he can then integrate the really exceptional questions and answers from his students into his permanent class materials, which he then freely shares outside of class with both students and his colleagues.
Paying it forward
Technology in the classroom has made it much easier for Kelvin to create and share information with others. “I have digitized pretty much everything that I use in the classroom and then prepared annotated answer keys and additional notes for everything. In Physics and in Math, I’ve given some 20 or 25 rookie teachers all of my stuff so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Kelvin told us.
Because his class materials are editable, recipients can customize these things to make them their own and fit the materials to their own flavor of classes. “It’s helped me share, and then quite often I get stuff shared back to me that I can use.”
Students benefit, too. “The purpose is learning, and trying to help kids find that angle from which the material suddenly makes sense to them,” added Kelvin. As part of that goal, he shares nearly everything with his students online. For video walkthroughs, he also records screencasts — sometimes live during an actual class, sometimes after school at home – which he then publishes on YouTube so that any of his students who must be away from class for various reasons can still view those all-important walkthroughs that he gives in class.
Kelvin’s commitment to spending a good chunk of his after-school time on the preparation and maintenance of these things does not go unnoticed or unappreciated by his students. All of the students we interviewed during our visit expressed a deep appreciation for their teacher’s efforts and involvement throughout the year. Several of the students had fallen ill at one point or another and were able to rely on Kelvin’s published materials to catch up and retain their grade level. Others were called away for sporting events several times a year and had to miss critical lessons, which they could then easily make up, thanks to Kelvin’s organized collection and presentation of these materials online.
“It has to be a time saver, not a time creator!”
After meeting with some of Kelvin’s students and hearing about how much they loved the online resources that their teacher provides outside of the classroom, we asked Kelvin to elaborate a bit more about how he shares his class notes and tutorials online.
“For me, for this to work, it has to be a time saver for teachers, not a time creator,” he explained. “I was looking very hard for essentially a virtual hard drive that kids could access. What I didn’t want to do was having to upload all of the notes to a website, having to create the link to those notes for each file that I uploaded, and then having to upload the entire website. That was far too many steps for me.”
After paying nearly $100 out of pocket for a commercial product that would allow him to do the things he wanted to do, he kept looking for a model for teachers that would allow him to do this for free. It was then that he came across Windows Live SkyDrive. With his free SkyDrive account, he could create multiple folders, even folders inside of folders, and create a place for each Math or Physics block. Inside of those folders, he could create a subfolder for each unit and then sort everything by date so that his students would know what the most current unit was. “I was looking for something that was free and SkyDrive’s 25GB allowance is great. I haven’t come close to filling it and if I haven’t come close to filling it, most teachers won’t — I have a lot of stuff on there. SkyDrive is terrific for all that; it meets all of my needs.”
But what if his students or colleagues don’t have OneNote? How could they still benefit from his notes? “Three years ago, I started uploading my notes from OneNote as PDF files and it works particularly well in Math and in Physics.” Exporting content from OneNote in the PDF format fully preserves the page compositions — even for pages that contain handwriting, drawings, and diagrams.
“What I started doing initially was just uploading my end-of-unit review answer keys, showing all of my steps. I found more and more what I was hearing from kids was ‘Oh, Mr. Dueck, don’t worry — I figured out #7. I looked at your work and I was forgetting to square root, and I won’t forget that again!” Reflecting on this for a moment, Kelvin went on, “So, let’s see… we have them learning for themselves, and learning in such a way that they have that ‘Aha!’ moment where things are probably going to crystallize much more than just me repeating things over and over.”
If explaining something once, why not just hit Record?
For Kelvin, the next logical step was to try and create screencasts of his classroom lessons. His original motivation for getting started with screencasts was triggered when he was asked to accompany the school’s basketball team on a trip to Hawaii. As he would normally not miss a whole week of school, Kelvin imagined recording himself teaching his lessons to an empty room so that a substitute teacher could just hit Play for the class, if necessary. This way, students could proceed with new class material in Kelvin’s absence instead of being stalled with an unnecessary review of old material.
“With the screencasts, I learned that if I’m going to explain something to a colleague once, why don’t I just hit Record and then upload it afterwards? A lot of the videos are me, sitting down with one colleague and showing them how to do it, and remembering to hit Record ahead of time,” said Kelvin.
Once he settled on a screencasting program, Kelvin began to upload his classroom lessons to YouTube, where students could easily watch the videos to accompany the notes they had already downloaded from Kelvin’s SkyDrive. There’s no doubt in Kelvin’s mind that the convenient, digital delivery of his notes and videos plays a big role in getting the attention of his students. “They don’t feel helpless anymore,” he told us. “Too often — especially in Math — kids feel helpless without their teacher.” By extending his work outside of the classroom and doing it all for free, Kelvin gives even those students who struggled before a greater chance of catching up.
For the benefit of the students
“I’ve decided I need to push this,” Kelvin said to us, which explains his reaching out by sending his original letter to our colleague’s blog. Over the next year, his goal is to get other teachers to do the things he does because he would love it if kids had a choice, if they could find four or five different teachers who share notes, tutorials, and videos. If one particular teacher’s explanation doesn’t fit a student’s learning style, he or she can try an alternate teacher, who might be using a great analogy in their materials and explain things in a way that really resonates with that particular student.
The reason Kelvin wants to involve other teachers is because he is convinced that it will eventually help with cutting down on everyone’s workload. “This year, I won’t be teaching Grade 10 Math. It would be great if somebody else would put a Grade 10 Math course online. I’d bet kids all over would flock to it!”
Years ago, when Kelvin’s teaching career began, a colleague gave him those paper binders filled with prepared lessons and class materials which helped him get started. Kelvin has never forgotten how big of a help this was to him, but he’s also never lost sight of his main priority — his students.
As the day of our visit drew to a close, Kelvin reiterated: “This technology has made my teaching job easier and I really encourage teachers to use it. But it’s not for the teachers. It’s for the students. I have 210 kids every year, and while I think I’m a pretty good teacher, I’d be stunned if I was the best teacher for each of their learning styles.”
“Students should be able to have choice, and they should be able to find lessons or notes or videos made by different teachers until they can find someone who fits their learning style. And, if they do that, learning will go from a feeling of helplessness to an exploratory journey as they try and find what works for them, to success in learning and success in life.”
As Jennifer and I said our goodbyes and headed for home, we were happy about having taken a chance on such a unique opportunity to visit a teacher who’s using our favorite software in his classroom and seeing first-hand how much this type of environment has changed since the days when we were both in school. While comparing mental notes on the drive home, we both realized how much we might have benefited from having had a teacher like Kelvin. Some of the kids these days may not even know how lucky they are.
Our sincere thanks to Kelvin and his students at Pitt Meadows Secondary for allowing us to spend a day in their classroom. For Jennifer and I, our school days may long be in our rear-view mirror, but we sure learned a thing or two during our visit.
Don’t miss the video we made to see Kelvin’s story in action and meet some of his Grade 12 students. And if you happen to know any current or aspiring teachers who may be looking for some new ideas in teaching, please share this blog post and video with them.
– Michael C. Oldenburg