Creating personalised worksheets using mail merge.

personalised learningThis is easy, and I can see a huge range of applications.  In a recent lesson I taught using wiki (which in itself wasn’t totally successful) I made individual worksheets that contained; personalised instructions, a list of resources tailored to the personalised task of each students and login and password information.  Each student needed different instructions (depending on their topic).  Obviously they all needed different passwords and login details.

So, I turned to mail merge as a way of doing this fairly easily.  I created an excel spreadsheet, which contained the names of each of my students in the first column.  I then made a column for instructions, a column for resources and two for login names and passwords.

I then created a master document with spaces where I wanted the personalised data to go.  Then using the mail merge wizard tools provided with Word (Under Tools – Mail Merge Manager (Mac 2007) and presumably a similar place in PC land).  I combined the two – hey presto, each student had an A4 sheet that explained their task, which was personal to them.

This got me thinking – perhaps I could use this in other ways.  Imagine a situation where everyone is used to getting a different sheet – one each.  Johnny Briggs’ (showing my age now!) sheet might start with a few more quick and easy questions to get him going but pretty soon might move up a gear into comparing a couple of sources on a point.  Fred Rubbles might focus on his getting the grammar right in a couple of sentences because you’ve noticed that he, and a few others, can’t get used to writing ‘their’ when they mean there’.   No-one will care that their sheets aren’t the same as the others, because EVERYONE’s will be different!

Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a silver-bullet for differentiation, but it is another tool we can use.  I can’t figure out how to make it do pictures (but then I’ve not tried very hard yet – perhaps someone can help me out).  I think kids would also get pretty (rightly) sick  of bleedin personalised worksheets every week.

Now I come to think of it though there are more than ‘worksheet’ possibilities here, what if you wanted specific students to think through something in a particular way, or sum up an argument from a particular standpoint – this would be an easy way to set up a starter or plenary in which different students have different roles, or different evidence to consider.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s tried this kind of thing before – or if you can tell me I CAN use pictures!

What to do with a wiki?

Last thursday Jane and I ran a third lesson with my year 9 ‘Zeldin’ class.  This was a second go at using the wiki to study the links between events and factors behind the development of surgery in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Moving on from last week.

We’d decided (see previous post) that the previous task had been too complicted, too abstract in order for the students to find a way in.  This time I was better prepared.  Students were divided into two groups.  Students in the first group were given specific events, persons or inventions to study.  The second, much smaller group, was given the task of thinking and writing about factors, and to be in charge of the quality control of links.

The activity

Individuals were given individual instructions (using mail merge in word – wow – an easy way to create personalised tasks – will try to blog this this week). These instructions included references to online and to paper references. We also modelled what we wanted them to do, using a few pages we’d mocked up on the wiki, which was:

Researchers – read and research about their invention, person or event, and write a wiki page explaining the impact it had on the development of surgery. When this work was done they were to think about how this development was linked to one of five factors. If they came up with a link they were to visit the wiki page related to that factor, and posit the link by leaving a comment on this page.

Factor Page Editors – write a brief description of this factor and how it might affect the development of surgery.  (This was to give them something to do whilst the links comments were generated by the researchers, and so that reserachers would have a generic description of the factor to consider whilst they were coming up with links).  Then, when comments were made they were to consider, research and then consolidate these links into the page about their factor.


I had hoped that this would enable the brighter students I had chosen to be ‘factors editors’ the opportunitiy to think in a more abstract way about how factors might work, and then to test their ideas against what was coming in from the researchers. At the same time the researchers were given the opportunity to get familiar with a specific event, and then given an opportunity to make links between this and the bigger picture.  The concept map, wiki pages, and comment forms were a way of encouraging and enabling these two ways of thinking.

What happened

I had a mind mapping session in the immediate aftermath (before discussing with Jane or any of the students), the results of which are below.

what went well about the third wiki lessonwhat didnt' go so well about the third wiki lesson

Halfway through the lesson Jane whispered ‘they can’t do links, it’s too abstract’.  So, I stopped the lesson and we had a brief discussion about what we meant my links – my intention being to enable them to think about and listen to others ideas about ‘linking’.  I hoped that this would enable them to suggest their own links.

They could talk about links in a generalised way – they were able to suggest how factors might affect the development of surgery (which was, in effect, the first part of the task assigned to factor page editors).  It became very clear pretty quickly that even in discussion they were unable to posit links between events and factors.

It was also evident that the students had ignored the books that had been handed out (despite the reference to their page numbers in the resources section of the worksheet).  Instead they had used google to search for the name of the event, invention or person they’d been asked to study.  They ate what they killed, without thought, and cut’n’pasted text from their searches into the wiki pages.  Having ‘done’ the first half of their task, they ran into real difficulties in the second and were unable to come up with links.

What’s next?  Further Questions, and a tiny rant.

The question that arises is ‘why can’t they link?’.  Is it because they aren’t developmentally capable of this at this age (I don’t think so, mainly because they can talk about it generally), because the activity didn’t really enable them to do this, because they aren’t asked to do this often, or because they’d merely copied and pasted lots of stuff from the internet, without engaging with it?  Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is because in many classes theres an unspoken agreement between students and teacher (heck I’ve colluded in this myself at times).  This agreement varies between ‘we both believe that sitting in-front of this computer and preparing something that looks amazing will enable you to learn about the topic we’re studying’ to ‘we both agree that you’ll let me get on with some marking if I let you fiddle with powerpoint’s animation capabilities’.  The fact that students passively sit infront of PCs for hours at home mean that we’ve got to design activities that make the learning more obvious.

The more I consider this, the more I’m thinking that computers ought to form parts of lessons.

Drupal Upgrade

Just upgraded the CMS engine behind this site to the latest version – something I really should do more often.

There’s lots more functionality, but as you can see, the look and feel has changed a little. I’ll revert to the old look and feel just as soon as I figure out how!



I can’t figure out how to get the old theme working properly, so I did a bit of hunting about, found this lovely ‘deco’ theme, and had a go at changing the logo. There’s a few bits to work on, but I think I’ll stick with this for a bit.

Are wikis really scary, or are we forgetting how we should teach?

I’m sure this sort of thing has been posted a million times in the Edu-sphere, but I’ve got to add my tuppence worth of amazed shock. I’ve been at some interesting discussions over the last few days about a new county-wide initiative, and about my new role as an SSAT Lead Practitioner.

At both I’ve been faced with gasps and horror when I suggested that we might like to use blogs and wikis with our students. In today’s meeting a senior, experienced and genuinely ‘learning focussed’ consultant asked me ‘why would you want to use a wiki with students?’.

This wouldn’t have been such an odd question if he wasn’t touting something quite as state of the art as he was (more details later I hope) in terms of educational technology. It was also shocking because his opposition was entirely based on the fact that ‘the students can put anything they like on there’.

I kinda thought that was the point – that they can direct and inform their own learning journey. I pointed this out, and the fact that students who used the tool inappropriately can easily be tracked and their privileges to use it withdrawn. The discussion moved on, and I thought I’d made a good point.

Tonight though, after some thought and a discussion about the wiki work I’m doing with Jane Shuyska on her research into the use of wikis in the classroom, I think there’s more to it – it comes down to pedagogy. Not merely the high falutin stuff about constructivism and enabling students to ‘name the world’, but the plain old fashioned stuff like designing suitable activities and tasks, feed back on work done, and last but not least, classroom management real, or virtual. Kids can write anything in a wiki. They can also write ‘anything’ in their exercise books, or on textbooks, or on the walls of your classroom, but we don’t let them. Neither should we allow ourselves to be in the situation where we’ve devolved so much responsibility for learning to computers, that we have no influence over the behaviour of our students online.

This means having new in-class routines such as; having offline work ready for those not co-operating or misusing these opportunities; asking students to log in as they arrive but then to turn off their monitors so that they can engage in a starter; or developing key-phrases that ensure attention is diverted from screens so that whole class teaching can continue.

It also means new forms of activity that don’t merely end up as glorified ‘webquests’ that students can ‘get on with’ as you mark work at the front desk. Online learning could be the starter, it could be a way of communicating between groups, it could be a away of refining and recording in a plenary – now that more and more computers and computer like technology is finding its way into ‘normal’ classrooms, we don’t have to justify a trip to the computer lab by making the lab-rats sit at their screens for the whole lesson – we can plan to use the ict when it’s most appropriate.

This, of course, means that each of us will plan different activities, with as many models as there are subjects and topics in the field of human knowledge (a few then). It does mean though that we must plan. Working with a temporary wiki might provide great opportunites for students to learn about factors in the development of medicine, or that doing a voice over for a video about the execution of Charles I, but each of us, individually, is going to have to work out for ourselves and our students what these opportunities are.


Wiki Woes

After a recent triumph in which many members of the class leapt at the wiki that we’d been introduced to, a second lesson in which we used it fell very flat. I’m trying to work out exactly why, and I think I may have hit upon the reason. The lesson was designed to use the mind-map / wiki interface to encourage students to make ‘links’ between factors and events to do with solving three main problems of the development of surgery, pain, blood-loss and infection.

Frankly, I was so amazed at the possibilities of the tool that Jane has introduced me to that I fell into the trap that we all do with computers from time to time; namely that if I put the children in front of a PC, give them some textbooks and a ‘task’ to carry out, they will learn. So we made a lovely mind map, in which the factors and the problems were set out. We then ushered in the students, acted out an amputation to illustrate the problems faced by 19th century surgery patients and plonked them in front of the PCs with the phrase ‘go for it’ ringing in their ears.

They didn’t go for it. Though, to be fair, they struggled on willingly, asking ‘so, are we learning about the problems or about the factors?’, or ‘why are we looking at links?’, or even ‘what do I type’. So, why had it not worked?

  1. We had created a very concrete set of problems (pain, blood loss and infection) – which they were emotionally engaged with, having seen an amputation performed on a classmate. Yet, when we asked them to work, it was at a very abstract level (‘how did the factor ‘war’ affect the development of surgery’);
  2. They didn’t know very much at all about the development of surgery, having never studied it before; and
  3. I hadn’t thought carefully about what I wanted the students to be able to do, or to know by the end of the lesson. Instead I hoped that the ‘coolness’ of the wiki would help them to learn ‘about factors and the development of medicine’.

So where do we go from here? I think that we use the same class, and we give them a very concrete task, each, one per individual pupil. This will give them knowledge about one aspect of the development of surgery. We then ask them to write about their piece of knowledge on the wiki, and to think carefully if it links with any of the factors. If it does then they should make an explanation of that link on their page, and to hyperlink to the relevant factor from within that explanation. This will

  1. give them a concerete area of knowledge to work on;
  2. ask them to think about factors in relation to something that they know about;
  3. require them to think about why they want to make a link.

There might also be scope for them to use the wiki as a guide to who they might speak to in the class about other topics in order to be able to clarify their thoughts on something – so they could collaborate on each other’s pages – perhaps some time set aside for wandering around the class to do this. Still thinking about this, will post more if I have any bright ideas!

Ps. I wonder if I’m the only person blogging about technology in education that writes ‘why didn’t that work?’ posts?! Pps anyone out there want to code an interface between a web-based mind mapping application and a wiki that automatically creates a wiki-page when a node or link is created on the mind-map?!