Archive for July, 2010

Technology in the classroom

July 29, 2010

Technology in the classroom is becoming a popular subject in my school.  The K – 8 principal wants to work towards a 1-1 laptop ratio in the middle school and have Smartboards in every classroom.  Many of the teachers want CPS student response systems (clickers) so they can give instant quizzes with instant results.  eInstruction InterMobi pads are also big on the wish list.  The use of iPod touches is a regular suggestion so teachers can upload lessons to the students.  I think all these ideas are great and would love to have them all but none of them fit into the reality of the present system of education at my school and, probably, most schools. 

Consider the laptops.  Initial cost of course would be a major issue.  A low budget netbook is about $250.  If we equip only the 6-8 grade kids then that is 110 netbooks for about $27,500.  In order to use those netbooks we would need a wireless network in the elementary building.  I have estimates from $11,000 to $30,000.  The $30,000 seems to be more realistic since I have had two different outfits give an estimate in that range.  With the right grant $60,000 can be covered.  That, I think, is the easy part.  Now for what I would consider the hard part: maintenance, lost computers and curriculum redesign.  The IT department here consists of one person, me, and I also teach half time.  To cover those 110 netbooks with tech issues, setup changes, teachers needing new software installed, and all the etceteras that are going to happen, the elementary school is going to need at least a half-time techie of their own.  Since finding a half-time techie is not really possible the school will need to hire a full-time teacher (or whatever) to be the half-time techie.  Good luck on finding someone who can actually fix netbooks.  There are also some more hidden costs in here; more Deepfreeze licenses and anti-theft software and/or insurance comes to mind.

In order to make this netbook thing work the middle school teachers are going to have to revamp their curriculum.  This will not be a case of reviewing textbooks to fit a need.  It would require a complete curriculum and pedagogy make-over requiring major research.  Having those $250 netbooks sitting in lockers or backpacks for weeks on end because the teacher does not have lesson plans designed around them would look really bad.  Hiring six or seven teachers through the summer to write a curriculum would not be cheap and those teachers may not be interested in losing their summer off.  And what do we do if some of the middle school teachers are not advocates of the 1-1 plan?  Firing and rehiring is a really bad idea.  I really do not think the average middle school teacher has the background to write a project of this type anyway.

When the 1-1 idea was initially mentioned I stared doing the usual internet research into who is doing what with what results.  An interesting result of my research was the number of schools that implemented the 1-1 plan and then in a couple of years discontinued the idea due to major issues.  The issues were varied but maintenance, curriculum, student apathy/neglect, and teacher unpreparedness were the major problems.  None of these are easy nuts to crack.

The 1-1 laptop project is probably by far the biggest technology in the classroom concept but with all the classroom technology it is the same basic issue, can the school get enough bang for the buck to justify the needed changes.  My wife teaches in a public school 7th grade.  The school equipped the rooms of those teachers that requested it with InterWrite interactive boards.  My wife is a workaholic when it comes to course planning and curriculum and it took her a year to get to the point where she feels the interactive board is useful enough to justify the expense.  All of this classroom technology requires a major time and philosophical commitment by the teacher and the school.  Bringing a new piece of technology in to a room and saying to the teacher “Here you are, now get our money’s worth out of it” simply is not fiscally responsible.  This is a really bad stereotype but most “older” teachers have a system they feel works and are less than willing to accept an innovation that “might” improve communication with students.  Introducing new technology in to the classroom cannot consist of a budget decision and an in-service by the vendor.

I am a computer geek who loves all the techno stuff for the classroom that is out there.  But I am also a teacher with a realistic concept of what I have time to do developed over many years of teaching.  If given a new piece of expensive classroom technology I know it is usually going to take me months to justify the cost and even then it may not improve the student’s ability to learn.  When I was just a teacher I wanted it all, but now that I am also the IT guy that has to purchase, do the setup and train teachers to use the techno gear, I am much less an advocate of technology in the classroom.  So much of it is like a little kid’s toy; it gets used intensely for a short while and then gets stuffed in the closet with all the other old toys.  Before I buy classroom technology now I ask the teacher how they are going to use it and how they feel it is going to improve their ability to teach.  The usual reply is “Uhhh.”

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MS Leadership Conference, part 2

July 19, 2010

Well, I made it to the MS Leadership Conference and back.  The trip over was incredible; great roads, great scenery, a ferry ride (for some reason I really like ferries) and nice weather (OK, a little rain north of Bellevue but no biggie).  Coming back was 7 hours on I-90, no joy there.  The in between was an education.  The Conference was definitely for the administration crowd but it was still a revelation to see how things sort of work at that level.  There was some discussion about Microsoft’s School of the Future in Philly but not really enough to get a clear picture.  The third day was a show-and-tell of useful software apps for the classroom (PhotoSynth, etc) but no real discussion on curriculum modifications, course design, teacher time commitment, or pedagogical aspects on using the software.  I think Microsoft’s “build it and they will come” approach to the educational uses of the software is somewhat lacking.  The energy needed to learn the software, rewrite the curriculum to make the implementation worthwhile, the hardware requirements, and getting the administration onboard with the necessary commitment to change it is way beyond what the average teacher can do on their own.  What Microsoft sees for the direction of education and technology is inspiring but simply requires too much for a teacher to implement without major training that does not exist at this time.  The shift and redesign in the curriculum of a public school would require years of committee meetings.  Microsoft needs to implement training at the bottom of the education ladder, with the teacher, not at the top.  If a teacher can see that the change would be a good thing for the students then they can sell it to the administration.  I think if MS were to put their money into teacher training instead of administrator training they would get a lot more bang for the buck.

MS Education Leadership Conference, here I come

July 9, 2010

This Sunday I am off to a three day Microsoft Education Leadership conference in Bellevue, WA starting on the 13th.  This is my first attendance of a computer conference of any type and my first conference of any type in about 15 years.  The fact that it was free, and the school was willing to foot the motel bill, was a good enough excuse to give it a whirl.  They had me fill out a pre-conference survey.  Considering I was not even sure what some of the survey questions were asking (too much hyper-geek speak) things do not bode well for the conference.  In order for public sector participants (?) to eat the offered lunch they are supposed to fax a letter from the institution’s ethics officer.  What, may I ask, is an ethics officer?  I am bringing enough money so I can buy my own lunch.  No, it does not take two days to get from Missoula, MT to Bellevue, WA.  I taking my motorcycle and am going to take every little northern Washington curvy back road I can find so long as it goes in a westerly direction.  If the conference is less than inspirational, the ride over will make up for it.  I think the biggest thing I want to bring away from the event are contacts.  I hope to meet people that are doing practical things for computer education at the teacher/kid level.

Algebra vs. programming syntax – x=x+1 makes no sense

July 8, 2010

Learning computer programming at the high school/middle school level is often compared to the study of mathematics at the same level.  Both require the acquisition of what is basically a new language with their own “words” and syntax, both require a logical, step-by-step thought process and both require patience and perseverance to get half-way decent at either.  The problem with this comparison is the differences between mathematics and programming are more significant, from the teaching aspect, than the similarities. 

To be good at mathematics often requires intuitive leaps to solve new problems.  As a math teacher I see that my best students have the ability to make the leap, then come back and fill in the holes left by that leap, while the average and below average students struggle along trying to rely on rote memorization of previous examples.    The good students will have an understanding of the concept behind the math and will have some examples memorized.  The average students will have some examples memorized and if a problem varies enough from the example, the student is lost.  In programming there can be no intuitive leaps in writing a program.  The computer simply does not like them.  Examples of code are not memorized, they are cut and pasted.  Cut and pasting on a math exam is bad, cut and paste in a programming assignment is expected. 

For years I have been trying to teach math kids to think outside the box, while in programming it is all inside the box.  Programming does take leaps of intuition, but hopefully not while typing the actual code.  I teach my students there are two major phases of programming; design and code.  I admit this is a bit simplistic but they get the idea.  In the design phase the programmer needs to think smart.  This is the phase where you take the concept/idea/assignment/whatever and build a rough outline of how the thing is going to work; what is the input, what is the output, what does the GUI look like, what functions and procedures would help break the program down into component pieces, and so on, are what I consider part of the design phase.  Hopefully this is where any leaps of intuition are going to take place.  This is also where the big money is made.   The code phase is where the programmer is actually hammering on the keyboard try to make the ideas work.  This is where the programmer has to think stupid, just like the computer.  This is also the job that is usually shipped overseas.  Here the programming is consists of using the language that has been somewhat predefined.  There is no such thing as writing an original For/Next statement so there is no need to get clever.  The clever part was back in the design phase were the For/Next was laid out. 

Many of the kids (all right, all of the kids) like to skip the design phase of this whole process.  They want to sit down and start hacking some code and see if something is going to work.  Now I admit this is my own favorite method of writing programs, it is sort of fun this way but experience has taught me that it is usually not the most efficient method.  Beginning programming students simply do not have the experience with years of coding to make this work.  In mathematics class I love it when the kids just start trying things, I like to see them experiment and dig through the textbook.  When a programming kid starts just trying things I know they do not have a clue what to do and they are going to take forever to get anywhere.  One of the big differences using the trial-and-error method in math verses programming is the shear scope or size of the problems.  The typical high school math problem is at most one page, the same can rarely be said of a typical programming problem.  If the kids try to solve a programming by hacking it the assignment just does not get done in a reasonable amount of time.  That design/planning time is critical.

Look at the programming statement “x = x + 1”.  Put yourself in the position of an average high school student as you look at this statement.  From the high school mathematics point of view this thing makes no sense.  For years the kids have been taught x = x, not x + 1.  All of the sudden this statement is supposed to make sense?  Good luck with that.  The better students will pick it up quickly, they can compartmentalize the differences as context requires.  The average kid is going to try to continue to apply the algebra rules he/she struggled so hard to learn over the last 4 years or so.  The differences like this between mathematics and programming seem minor to us, the teachers and programmers, but to the kid struggling with both they are major confusers.

Programming can be hard and sometimes we, the teachers, make it even harder by not paying attention to the differences in what the students already know and what we are trying to teach them.  The logic that a program has to go through, every little step being defined and succinct, is not the easiest way for kids to think.  They what to make those jumps in logic and steps so forcing the kids to “think stupid” is counter to their normal thinking.  Beginning programmers need to be able to count on their fingers.