Simple but brilliant Maths resources

Margaret Williams from Lakers School has produced some really great lesson starters from the question bank in her Learn your Tables authoring group (requires login). They are so fast that I got really flustered the first time I tried one, and muffed it completely. They are a great aid to getting the times tables wired in.

What I really love about them is the simplicity. I tend to be always looking for how we can add features and do cool new things with Yacapaca; Margaret has reminded me that complexity is not necessary for great learning.

Anyway, here’s a sample. Have a go yourself.


So it’s bye-bye BBC Jam, or at least au-revoir.

If you have not been following this story, BBC Jam was the renamed BBC Digital Curriculum, which aimed to produce high quality online learning materials for up to half the English curriculum. It has now been suspended following some legal argy-bargy.

Plenty of pundits have weighed in with opinions about whether Jam was a good or a bad service, and just what its demise (if permanent) might mean, so I won’t. If you are interested, here is a pro-Jam post and here’s an anti-Jam post.

What struck me was just how small it was for something that has eaten £150M of the taxpayer’s money. After two years of effort by what must have been a very large team, they had 170,000 users. That sounds like a lot until you do the arithmetic. Supporting those users cost £882 each.

At that ratio, Yacapaca’s 359,455 members (as of 13:08 this afternoon) would have cost Chalkface just over £317M. Which happily it didn’t, as I would have had to do rather more than just re-mortgage the house to fund it.

What on earth did they spend all that money on?

Authoring case-study

Michael Record runs a popular Technical Authoring evening class at Broward Community College in For Lauderdale, Florida. He’s using a very effective mix of online and classroom teaching to do it, which he’s very kindly given me permission to profile here.

The core of the course is the course blog. There is one entry per week, telling the students what to expect in the next class. Michael also uses the blog as a handy access point for essential downloads and links.

Each lesson starts with a quick Yacapaca test of between four and fourteen questions about the previous week’s content. Here’s the start-of-course quiz. Michael points out:

I don’t know how much sense my questions will make to outside observers. They tend to reflect points I want to emphasize, points that were important to my textbook’s author, and points specific to assignments I created.

I certainly had no trouble following it, though it clearly is his own course and not something you could just pick up and teach from. If I were teaching a similar course here in the UK, I guess I could re-use somewhat more than half half Michael’s questions and save myself a lot of work.

Another interesting point from the UK perspective is that Michael is following the Mastery teaching principle:

I also think it notable to offer this–the weekly Yacapaca tests are not linked to the students’ grades. Teaching is a recursive process to me. I teach, assess, and reteach, until students master content. Their grade is based on the final mastery of the content, not on how much of last week’s class they can recall during the first ten minutes of this week’s class. Yacapaca is invaluable for providing me a snapshot of what has been mastered and what needs to be retaught.

Note the word ‘snapshot’. This is a word I hear repeatedly in the context of Yacapaca. Multiple-choice tests, especially, deliver assessment results quickly without getting in the way of your teaching. But don’t expect them to give you a deep understanding of a student’s inner being.

One of the really cheering things for me is the way Michael continually tweaks both the course and the assessment:

Since I am constantly revising and improving my syllabus, the content changes slightly from semester to semester. In a typical week, I’ll use 7 questions from the previous semester’s test and write three new ones. This way the weekly test is a true assessment of whether students mastered the material from the week before.

I say ‘cheering’ because Michael is exploiting one of the unique features of Yacapaca. When we first decided to store questions separately from quizzes, I knew we were making the system more complicated than it absolutely had to be, just to knock out a quick quiz. I reasoned that over time, authors would want to reuse questions in different combinations, and that when they did they would appreciate the extra flexibility this approach offers. This is exactly how Michael is using Yacapaca.

The course tests are grouped into two semesters, which you can see here (Yacapaca login required)

You will also find them in the English category. Do remember when looking at these that the course blog explains the material being covered, and each quiz covers the previous week’s content.

Two final points, at the risk of stating the obvious:

  • This was all done on zero budget, using resources (Yacapaca and the WordPress blogging system) that cost nothing except time.
  • Like most readers of this blog, Michael is a professional teacher, not a writer or professional author.

Click to enlarge

Greeting new authors

Flickr is my role-model of how to build a successful collaborative community. This is from an interview with Stewart Butterfield, one of the co-founders (via Citizen Agency):


What’s the key to making online communities work?


I’m not sure I have a universal answer to that. Take the people working on Flickr, including myself, a lot of the development team and Caterina Fake who’s my wife but also the co-founder; all had really extensive experiences with online communities, most of us going back to the days before the Web. We worked really hard but I don’t think we had any formula for how to pull it off. Flickr could have gone in a million different ways.

A lot of our success came from George, the lead designer, and Caterina. Both of them spent a lot of time in the early days greeting individual users as they came in, encouraging them and leaving comments on their photos. There was a lot of dialogue between the people who were developing Flickr and their users to get feedback on how they wanted Flickr to develop. That interaction made the initial community very strong and then that seed was there for new people who joined to make the community experience strong for them too.

Interestingly I remember this. I had some correspondence with Caterina when I first joined, and it really did make a difference…eventually. It was probably two years before I really started to get my teeth into Flickr.

Those of us involved in the creative end of Yacapaca often get frustrated at the way teachers often join authoring groups and then don’t get involved. We do offer quite a lot of support to those who really put energy in, but we are not so good at the ‘meeting and greeting’ side for newbies. Time to take a leaf from Caterina’s book and fix that!

15000 questions

There are now 15,000 individual questions in Yacapaca, compiled into just under 2,000 quizzes. That’s a huge resource teaching material! You probably would not know it is there, though, because much of it is hidden away in authoring groups which you have to join before you can use it.

So, to give you an idea of the astonishing variety available, we have pulled together some of the more complete offerings around just one topic: spreadsheets, and pulled them into a single category under “Set Tests”. See it here (requires login).

If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, read on. There are 139 public authoring groups in Yacapaca, with every (I think) curriculum subject covered. If they don’t contain the quizzes you want now, it is an easy matter to compile your own. Try a search on your subject or topic here and astonish yourself with how much is now available to use with your students.