Archive for December, 2012

Towers and laptops and tablets – oh my!

December 30, 2012

The future of school computer use is making things difficult for the school hardware purchasers like me.  Do I buy new towers or laptops or one of three OS tablets?  Then throw Chromebooks into the mix. Eeek.  I buy towers for my labs for monitor size and they are not likely to walk away.  Laptops now have the power and reliability of towers and the portability is nice in a standard classroom.  Laptop prices have also become comparable to equivalent towers.  They do present some physical management issues (check out, battery life/power, being dropped, growing legs) but these can be dealt with.  Tablets are the big gray area for me.  The school has iPads and for particular tasks (surfing and particular apps) they are great, but they are not much for producing work.  Programming is slowly breaking into the iPad world (Codea) but dealing with the small screen and the need for a keyboard make it sort of a pain in the rear.  Android tablets have a great price point but it is an unfamiliar OS for me and my teachers.  After a while you simply have to say enough is enough.  Microsoft tablets are priced out of range and the Windows RT versions only run Store software, a major issue.

My wish is for a Win8 convertible in the $500 range.  Tablets are great for portability but are just not great if a lot of typing or a larger screen is needed.  The wireless keyboard does solve the keyboard issue but then you might as well get a laptop.  One of my teachers pointed out an aspect with laptops I had never considered.  She does not like laptops in her classes because the kids had a tendency to hide behind the screens.  She does a lot of groups with kids in a circle.  The laptop screen seems to be a barrier in the communication in this group work, especially with the quieter kids.  She wants iPads or tablets in her room for this reason.  This “barrier” is not something I had even considered but it does seem to be an issue to consider in this type of class.  (It is extremely important to have good communication with your teachers; they actually have good ideas and observations.)

I would love to be able to buy one device to satisfy all needs but it is not going to happen.  And one device is a bad idea.  Kids need to be able to learn multiple devices and the best way to do that is to offer multiple devices.

As a production tool the tower PC is still on the top of the pile.  Nothing beats 23 inch dual monitors with a real keyboard and a mouse for actually doing work.  It can write software for Android, iOS and Windows.  I have two set up this way in my advanced programming lab (only two kids) and it makes a huge difference.  The advanced kids do a lot of reading of on-line text material so the dual screen is a must.  As a consumer tool I think the 7 inch tablet will be the direction of the future.  My wife won an iPad mini last month so I have had time to compare the regular iPad and the mini.  The mini is the way to go.  It is large enough for even my blind eyes and the smaller size is much handier.  For the little kids the size is perfect for little hands.

Towers, laptops and tablets.  Windows, iOS, Chrome and Android.  All stirred together with a big stick.  We’re having fun now!

TouchDevelop – Cool idea but EEEEK!

December 17, 2012

So I thought I would look at TouchDevelop.  Opps.  What a great idea with the absolute worst tutorial/PowerPoints/books to accompany it.  Who writes this stuff?  Some genius from MIT with absolutely no capacity to communicate to the lower life forms?  I admit I have not spent more than an hour in the attempt to figure this out but an hour is about 45 minutes too long to get something that is supposed to be for beginners working.  I used to think GameMaker had the worst tutorials imaginable (they updated them recently, they are still pitiful) but TouchDevelop has lowered the bar to a new low.  I live on tutorials in order to learn programming (there is not a whole lot of choice) so I have gotten pretty proficient at understanding the things even when they are poorly written.  I cannot even figure out how to start or where to start with a TouchDevelop program.  Writing tutorials is not rocket science.  You write something you think is clear and easy to understand then you give it to someone who knows nothing about the subject and see how far they get.  Then you rewrite your tutorial all over again and repeat.  Having an intimate grasp of a topic usually means you are not a suitable person to write a tutorial unaided.  It nothing else, hire a middle school or high school teacher to go through the material to see if it is usable for kids.  And definitely do not release a product until the documentation is right.

Since this looks like such a great idea I will tinker with it a bit more to see if I can stumble on the Rosetta Stone but it is not looking good.  I have a feeling it just needs some time.

I will continue to look for the next great idea in programming for kids simply because I like to show them the latest and greatest to keep them interested.

Tech in the classroom and Educational heresy

December 9, 2012

I have been following with interest Dan Meyer’s blog ( post “Harder than you think”.  Being the school tech guy I should be all pro-tech and a believer in the more the merrier. Prior to becoming the tech guy I was, afterward, not so much.  I just see so much of it purchased without a plan for its use.  Many people, and administrators seem to have this the worst, believe in the “buy it and they will come” philosophy.  To incorporate tech into the classroom, be it something as simple(?) as a Smartboard or something as methodology shaking as an iPad, takes time and planning.  It takes time in several aspects.  Time for the teacher to place the tech into their curriculum and methodology, and time for the techie to make sure everything works seamlessly.  The teacher is comfortable with their old methodology and their pedagogy is based around what they have been doing for years.  As soon as that tech does not integrate seamlessly it is going on the shelf.  I know my teachers simply do not have the time to waste in getting some piece of tech to work in the middle of a lesson.  The slightest hang-up and that tech is on the shelf and will probably stay there.  A lot of these hang-ups can be prevented with proper training, but training is another thing that takes time.  My school presently trying to train teachers on our early out day a couple of times a month.  By the time the staff is collected the training time is about 35 minutes.  And teachers are worse than kids to get to be quiet in class.  When introducing something as play changing and as expensive as iPads then the training should be something like two weeks in the summer to include curriculum/pedagogy rewriting along with simple device training.  Simply finding apps that work and are worth the interruption that tech involves takes time.  The training has to convince teachers that the tech will improve their ability to communicate concepts to their student and not just be another way of doing the same thing.  The summer training will also give the techie support people time to troubleshoot in an active environment and come up with solutions to problems.  Now the school is not only buying expensive tech but paying teachers to come in for training.  Tech is expensive.

Now comes the question – is tech in the classroom worth the price?  I am not talking about teaching technology, but teaching with technology.  Is teaching math with iPads apps any better than teaching math with a piece of chalk?  Are we getting better understanding, better graduation rates, better college attendance numbers and better college completion numbers?  Considering almost everything in the world is becoming tech based teaching with technology is teaching technology.  Kids need to learn how to troubleshoot technology just to survive in the job world.  Is it possible the future of education is not math, English, history, etc. as it has been for the last 100 years or so?  Is the tech revolution going to require a complete revamping of how AND what we teach?  Is it possible that those teachers that are putting the tech on the shelf because it is interrupting their content teaching are going the wrong way?  Is it possible that teaching content with tech more important than teaching content?  Educational heresy!  I do not have enough brain cells to argue that one way or the other.




No wonder there is a CS teacher education problem

December 4, 2012

I think this is one of the problems with CS education.  The link goes to a presentation given by an education professor at the local university at a state conference for administrators.  He is the computer tech education guru in the department.

Martin is a good friend and I respect his opinion but respect does not mean I think he has a clue what technology education is all about.  I looked at his technology today slide and his not technology slide and the first thing that came to mind was “no wonder we have no real CS teacher education program”.  Martin is a specialist in teacher tools for the classroom but there is something wrong when the supposed tech guru puts programming in the not technology list.  I look at Martin’s list of what technology is today and think there is almost no technology in the list; it is mostly consumer software and consumer gadgets, all of which are very useful tools in education.  I do agree several of his not technology list items are not, and never were, technology, but the other half is the backbone of technology.  Neither list can be ignored because both can be absolute necessities in the world today.  Being able to use all that nifty consumer software and gadgetry does mean you had better know how to troubleshoot hardware and software issues; that you had better have a general idea how to fix it when it does not work; that it is not all just magic that is somebody else’s responsibility to take care of.  We are educating teachers on how to use this consumer tech to supposedly improve their ability to teach and to improve their student’s skills in consumer tech.  We should also be preparing teachers how to teach the kids how to build this consumer tech and how to invent the consumer tech of the future.  We should be teaching kids how to make Martin’s technology list all skeuomorphisms (you need to read the rest of the slides to define that one) before somebody in China or India does.

Now I realize Martin is educating non-technology teachers and not CS teachers but there seems to be a philosophy in this presentation that emphasizes consumer technology and totally ignores producing technology.  If this is the trend in mid-level state universities then we proponents of CS education are in deep dodo.  I suspect most of the nation’s teachers come from mid-level state universities and I bet Martin is not the exception.