Tag Archives: technology

Quarterly Revue

Yes, I spelled my title correctly.

This quarter I continued my habit of critiquing elements of education technology, in one instance eliciting some thoughtful conversation regarding the appropriateness/usefulness of interactive white boards in classrooms.  I believe that continuing to think about these tools and their use was a good step toward structuring my future classroom in a way that best serves students – including leveraging the right tools in the right way, in terms of tech.  I also drew quite a few comments with my musings on the seeming fine line between professionalism and caring, and how one can look like the other in teaching, and vice versa. It’s good to get the chance to stretch my thinking on these issues, and my colleagues have given me great opportunities to do so this quarter, both in class and in the blogosphere.

I took what I think is my first ever opportunity to post actual student work in my blog, and commented on assessment; doing this in a public way, which both shows what I’m doing in my teaching and invites comment on it, is pretty new to me, and I’m just starting to get used to it. But I’m encouraged by the results so far.

My most valuable contributions to others’ blogs came in the form of my comment on a math lesson, in which I contended that number sense should be the true goal of math instruction, and my thoughts on the value of integrating the teaching of literacy skills with literacy content in this post. In both cases, what I mainly did was reference some pieces of my own (emerging) education philosophy, constructed from the theory and some of the practice we’ve been exposed to in our training so far; I think these references mainly served as reminders to focus the conversation. Hopefully they were found helpful.

Overall, it’s been a tough quarter, and I have to confess I don’t think I’ve been expending quite as much brain power on my blog as I have been on other needful things. But I do believe that my blog contributions are getting more refined and more purposeful on the whole, as well as perhaps more brave – I’ve been more willing to share everything, not just my successes but my worries as well. I see this as a positive trend that I will continue to explore.

Going forward, I’m not sure exactly what will happen to this blog. I think it will continue to be used, though it may suffer a dry spell; this quarter’s going to be busy, and after that, I have to get hired. But if I think anything especially profound, or if my students do something I think the world needs to see, I’ll put it here. Until then, happy teaching, and happy reflecting.

SmartBoards 2: Revenge of the SmartBoards

Thinking about one thing and another, reflecting further on things, and discussing my interactive whiteboard experiences with colleagues, I decided to input the following Google search: “interactive whiteboard cheapest”.

I was led to the following blessed gem: http://digitaldollar.edublogs.org/2010/02/01/the-55-interactive-whiteboard/

The above is a) 3 years old and b) a tutorial for, through your own ingenuity, building your own interactive board which is ridiculously cheaper than the cheapest commercial unit.  There’s even comments on this post which show you how to get hold of cheap infrared pens without having to challenge your soldering skills.

I have 2 reactions to this resource: 1) that’s super cool and 2) I’m still not sure exactly how much this adds to students’ learning.  You’ll still find yourself at the front of the class; you’ll still be in the same spatial arrangement with your students that teachers might have been in 1920, even if you’re using infrared light instead of chalk.  Your students still won’t have any readier access to computing, searching, and digital creation.  You’ll still just be presenting; as a teacher, it’ll be up to you whether that’s synonymous with teaching.

Add to this the fact that 2 colleagues of mine gave a presentation today on the Airsketch app for iPad ( https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/air-sketch/id376617790 ), and it’s easy to see that there are so many more sophisticated sollutions to these teaching problems than simply dumping district money into FutureChalkboard!(trademarked) purchases.  If I can use a $300 iPad to conduct a digital presentation from anywhere in the classroom, where’s the percentage in spending more money for less utility?

An Encounter With EduTech Economics

A few weeks ago, I went to a training session, wherein I was introduced to the Promethean-brand interactive whiteboard.

I’ve been curious about these things for a while – I spent most of October and November visiting a school which had one of these in every classroom – and my colleagues and I have often spent time wondering: is this a worthwhile piece of technology?  I considered this training a chance to find out.

Here’s my assessment:

As far as pure utility, I believe that one of these devices – a Promethean board or a SMARTboard – is technically better than the next best thing, which would be the combination of a standard whiteboard and a projector.  Unfortunately, the interactive board’s advantages are pretty incremental.  For one thing, when you’ve got an interactive board, you don’t have to raise or lower any projector screens when you want to write or draw something for your class to see – you can just do it, and what’s more, you can do it on top of pictures or text that you’re looking at – offering a handy tool to annotate stuff on-the-fly.  You can also manipulate the elements of any digital presentation with a stylus as you teach, instead of having to go back and forth between the board and your computer.  (Of course, you could solve this problem with a reasonably-priced clicker.)

…But as far as I can see, that’s kind of it.  And it has to be said: the (small) ways in which this technology changes education seem mainly to be focused on the experience of the teacher, not the students.  I’ve seen for myself that from the students’ perspective, they may as well just be watching another PowerPoint or hand-drawing on a dry-erase board; they’re not experiencing anything different.

Add to all of this the fact that the cheapest Promethean board I could find online was almost $1700, while the most expensive VGA projector and dry-erase board combination I could find totaled out at under $500…and I know which purchase I would make.  In my view, an interactive board is technically a more powerful presentation tool; but my questions are: A) is presenting synonymous with teaching?, and B) does an interactive board really have a $1200 advantage over more “conventional” tools?  My answer to both questions is “no”.

Especially when you consider that that $1200 difference could be spent on 4 iPad Minis, as part of what I would deem a much more useful effort toward democratizing computing power and putting digital tools in the hands of students, rather than on the Tech Altar in front of them, at the “head” of the class.

No Son of Mine Won’t Do No Homework

The notion of school without homework is one which has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it in the writings of Seth Godin.  It was a notion I hadn’t thought about for a while, until Jeff Utecht brought it up during a visit to one of my classes this past Monday.

Briefly: assuming all of your students have easy Internet access (a smaller and smaller assumption as the years go by, even for kids from lower-income families and especially in school districts with a 1:1 device ratio), and acknowledging that, by and large, a teacher is not the best lecturer in the world, nor is lecture/direct instruction the easiest way for all students to learn, then it is reasonable to assume that students are just as able to learn at home – by which I mean, absorb facts – as they are at school.  That being the case: instead of lecturing students at school and giving them packets to practice at home, why not assign them something online to watch or read – a widely accredited blog, a TED talk, an online journal article or two – and have them do that at home; then when they come to school the next day, give them a project to work on which builds on what they’ve learned.  That way, school is an environment in which students are constantly showing what they know, rather than being made aware of what they don’t; students see that learning happens throughout their lives and not just within a classroom; often, students all come to the table with the same information, and if they haven’t understood it, they have each other and their teacher to rely on.  They can do and learn, rather than just sitting back and being taught.  They can see their own, and each other’s, work unfold before them as they create it in a social setting which is seen as a resource rather than a distraction.

A good point was raised during Jeff’s presentation on Monday: if we have the technology to learn anything in the comfort of our own homes, why go to school?  Answer: because we are social animals.  Yet “socializing” is a word I so often hear used negatively in school settings, as in “The boys in my class just like to socialize, and don’t get any work done.”  Do I advocate for spending an entire school day recapping the latest [insert popular culture reference here]?  No.  But I do contend that “socializing” can be an asset to learning – and, used more broadly, is maybe even half the point of putting children together in school.

Anyway, thinking about all this “no-homework” theory (which educators worldwide have tried successfully at this point), I went to my first ever parent-teacher conference this past Saturday.  I observed (and only observed) two different conferences, and one of them went in an unexpected direction: the parent in question wound up rambling extensively on her son’s (not the child she was there to discuss, by the way) “disgusting” (her word) lack of homework which he was getting from his middle school.  She went on and on about how it was going to hurt him in the long run, that he’d be unprepared for schools which gave homework down the road.  (I did not have the chance to ask her whether her son was assigned videos or readings in place of the packets she obviously thought he should be doing.)

I admit I wilted a little bit, and this experience has left me with a couple of questions.

1.  Assuming the “no-homework” model is a good idea (as I have described it above), how do we sell it to parents who almost always will have grown up under a very different scholastic paradigm?

2.  Keeping the same assumption in mind, what do we say when such objections are raised?  Would I, indeed, be doing a disservice to my students by setting up an environment which, as I see it, is better for their learning, yet out of kilter with the way things are done, still, in so many schools today?  If they wind up in some of these other schools, will they be at a disadvantage?  If so, how can I counteract that disadvantage?

I have serious doubts that telling anxious parents “the System is outdated and needs to change” will do anything to assuage fears (of which there are a lot, aren’t there?).  So what do I say instead?

On Emergent Learning and Robots

“Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.” -Arthur C. Clarke

Got this quote from a lovely TED Talk from the mind of Sugata Mitra, education researcher.  It’s a quote that makes a scary kind of point, one which resonates throughout the Talk and leads to what I deem Professor Mitra’s final conclusion: “Education is a self-organizing system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”  (Actually, I believe the Professor would properly call this a hypothesis, not a conclusion.)

What all this implies is that, in an age of robot instructors, teaching is even less technical, even less well-defined, than we already perceived it to be.  Professor Mitra’s advocacy of the “Granny Method” – teaching through encouragement, even if the instructor doesn’t necessarily understand the subject matter – points this up, with weight behind it; the Granny Method works.  I’ve seen it – in my own life and in the classroom, I’ve seen countless examples of people encouraging and driving education who have no idea exactly what the child they’re pushing to excel is supposed to be doing.

Does that mean a content expert isn’t a significant boon to a child’s learning?  Not remotely.  But in a 1:1 education environmentthat expert does not have to be in the room.  Children these days can easily have a face-to-face conversation with Dr. Michio Kaku, if they want to (and the good Doctor is available; tricky, he’s popular).  All it takes is Skype and a moment of his time.  (To make this very clear: this is something which would take place only/most likely in my wildest dreams, but it’s way more possible in 2013 than it might have been in, say, 1995.)

It should also be noted that, even after hearing Professor Mitra’s stories about the (seemingly) miraculous results of his Hole in the Wall experiments, I remain unconvinced that these results imply that teachers are unnecessary.  Recall that throughout his TED Talk, Professor Mitra makes regular reference to students teaching each other.  Not only is this an amazing outcome of the experiment – and a fantastic opportunity for these children to witness and reflect on their own learning – but it’s proof of the effectiveness of teaching, of being there to encourage learning.  Such proof is only enhanced by Professor Mitra’s anecdotes about the “Granny Cloud”.

I come away from this experience reflecting on the degree to which my culture’s general perception of teachers – the pointdextery stereotype, the ever-correcting, bespectacled arbiter of content, the veritable robot at the head of the line of desks – is fundamentally off-target.  We should be aiming for teachers who embody the Granny Cloud – or Grandaddy Cloud, or Ungendered Encouraging Older Person Cloud, if you prefer – always encouraging, always challenging, always praising effort and learning – things which people of all generations and all levels of tech-comfort can certainly recognize and appreciate.

In closing, I wanted to post a link to this post, a product of a blogger who is in no way my geekier, less education-focused alter-ego.  It treats on technology’s nature as a human product – not the terrifying force which will replace us; our tool, not our successor – as long as we know how to use it, and how to keep it in perspective.

On iPads and EduTech in General

Having just spent some time sampling Jeff Utecht’s thoughts on computing/information tech devices in schools (beginning here and meandering on to here), I find my own thoughts on the subject trying to land in a specific part of my brain so I can get them down in blog form.  This process is aided/complicated by the fact that in the professional seminar I’m attending this Fall, we all just got issued iPad Minis.  I say issued in italics because it just seems to warrant that extra dramatic touch.

Let me nail down a few facts (yes, the underline was necessary) about the iPad.

1.  It has no keyboard.  Oh, you can type with it – but the technique required would make my dear sweet computer skills teacher from 3rd grade (back in the early 90s) faint with horror.  I’m not sure elementary-aged kids would even recognize the term “hunt and peck” these days.  Maybe it’s a phrase that’s disappearing.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing – in fact, I’m not evaluating this state of affairs at all, at least in an objective sense; I’ll not hesitate to say that I personally loathe trying to type on a touch-screen.  My point is that if you’re expecting kids to learn to type on an iPad, you’re dreaming.  One final point, though: there are quite a few dictation apps available that I’m only starting to play with.  I almost wrote this very post with Dragon Dictation in my car as I drove home from class today, but I ran into the following problem:

2.  Without wireless internet around, the iPad has approximately as much utility as a hand axe.  Am I using hyperbole to make a point?  Yes.  Is there truth behind what I say?  Also yes.  While there are many apps which work perfectly fine without any need for the internet, some of the most useful ones are hopelessly crippled when there’s not a wifi source nearby (including Dragon, which I mentioned above).  I find this ironic, since this confounded widget (he said, sounding not at all like an elderly backwoods curmudgeon) is supposedly meant to be an ultra-portable computer.  Put “portable” in quotes and you’re closer to the truth – to get the most out of this device, I have to be within ten feet of the service counter at a Starbucks.  Again: you can still use the iPad without wifi – and I have a feeling I will, which luckily means I can still take advantage of the video and audio recording tools which I’ll need for my work in the coming months.  But it’s clear the thing isn’t really designed for that paradigm.

Others have said it better than I: the iPad is, at its heart, a tool for consumption.  Not the 19th-century disease – the act of absorbing information and entertainment.  While such an act is a necessary part of education, we as educators – when we find ourselves lucky (yes, lucky) enough to be placed in a school which has one of these fabled 1:1 EduTech programs – have to make sure we’re pushing the tech beyond its basic capabilities as marketed.

The iPad certainly has grand potential for this – especially when a school has a well-maintained, well-broadcast wifi network in place.  I’m really looking forward to seeing how these things impact the way my classes look and feel and work over the course of this quarter.  But let me throw just one more fact:

3.  “iPad” is a brand.  Just like “Dumpster“, it’s a brand which very nearly became synonymous with an entire category of computing devices.  Why do I know this?  Because my tablet of choice is a Nexus 7, a device which apparently NOBODY has ever heard of, because whenever I’m seen using it I’m always asked EITHER “How much did your iPad cost?” OR “How much did your Kindle cost?”, leading me to believe that Kindle is now warring for supremacy in the brand-as-a-technical-title competition to completely wipe the term “tablet” from the English language.  My point?  The choice of so very many schools to buy iPads, specifically, is a great glaring instance of vested interest.  Most of those schools have very cuddly relationships with Apple.  Is this a bad thing?  Not if it helps students.  I’m not impugning the iPad’s capabilities (as a tablet).  I’m just saying it’s not the only one out there.  So don’t let it dazzle you – chances are there’s something out there which looks almost exactly like it which can do most or all of the same things (or more) for a more competitive price.  (Yeah, I said it.)

What I’m getting at is that the iPad is a tool, in the same conceptual category as the hand axe I mentioned above (i.e., it is an artificial object created to extend human capability).  Unlike the hand axe, the iPad can easily open up a grand horizon of learning opportunities for students, after relatively little training in its use.  As Mr. Utecht has mentioned, it is miles beyond a “textbook replacement”.  Actually, that wording’s inadequate: what I’m trying to say is that the iPad has the potential to completely destroy the entire textbook industry by making textbooks completely irrelevant.  I’m going to mention vested interest again as a segway into the following statement: in a public education system (or “complex”) such as that which currently exists/is currently pursued by American policymakers, the decisions being made as far as what’s good for children, what will best prepare them for their future, and what we should procure or design to facilitate all the above ends, are so bogged down by vested interest (the relationship between politicians, test-makers, and textbook writers, for instance) and sluggish adaptation to the times as to be laughable.  America will start to see that more and more clearly as more of these 1:1 programs become prominent.

IF – and only IF, or “IFF” – those programs are managed in a clear-headed and open-minded manner – as opposed to this.