Archive for February, 2014

School tech, my opinions of what does and what does not work

February 24, 2014

In my contemplation of the Tech Plan I considered from my experience what works and what does not.  Here is a quick look from one school’s experience with popular school tech toys.  Remember, these are the opinions shaped by a TIGHT (squeak, squeak) budget.

  1. iPads.  The elementary teachers that have them like them.  Those that do not have them want them.  The high school teacher that used them thought they were a bit of a pain and they could only be forced to do what she wanted.  From the management side (my side) they are a headache.  The single account thing is a deal killer at the higher grades.  Kids are able to enter their own iTunes accounts and download to a school iPad.  Apple Configurator has a tendency to crash, a lot.  The Mobile Device Managers out there are useful but the kids can delete or beat the proxy method easily.  Apple likes to make iPad for schools sound like the greatest thing since the invention of chalk.  It isn’t.  With a lot of training and a lot of prep our lower grade teachers are getting good results.  The apps are the key.  If there are particular apps that are the only thing that will do what the teacher wants, the iPad is the way to go.  The little kids are not at the stage where they want to jail-break the thing.  The boundary seems to be about the sixth grade.  Below – good, above – not so good.  For the middle school and the high school a laptop is a much better bang for the buck.
  2. Laptops.  By far the best bang for the buck when placed in a students’ hands, be it PC or Mac.  A laptop beats an iPad in every case where an Apple app is not the focus.  Maybe I should say this is where output from students is required.  For little kids where all they are doing is using the device and not producing anything (papers or what not) the iPad is nice due to simplicity and size.  For producing the iPad is not in the same ball park as a laptop.  But then it was never intended to be.  Even the kids are learning this.  At the middle and high school the kids with iPads are borrowing laptops for school work and leaving the iPad for games.
  3. Smartboards or Smart projectors.  Training, it seems to be all in the training.  Those teachers with good training (or lots of after school hours to commit to self training) really like the boards.  Those with a shortage of training use the boards to a less extent if at all.  We have both Smartboards and Smart projectors.  The projectors are the way to go.  No special surface, does not reduce wall space, can project as large as you want or as large as you can find a surface, much cheaper than a large Smartboard and the ultra-short throw projector keeps the teacher from going blind.  There are other interactive board devices out there that work pretty well but for the combination of projector and software I think Smart has them beat.
  4. Ebeam Edge interactive device.  If the projector is already hanging for the ceiling and you just need a device the Ebeam is pretty hard to beat.  Simple to use, just stick on a white board with sticky putty, orient it and you are ready.
  5. Boxlight OutWrite2 1.4 interactive device.  If the projector is already hanging for the ceiling and you just need a device the OutWrite is pretty slick.  I have only done a 2 week demo so I do not know what it is like long term.  The pens that come with it are aluminum, not plastic.  Great for clumsy teachers.  The drawback is the teacher’s body can get in the way of the camera which sees the pen.  Not a big problem but still something to think about.
  6. Clicker response devices.  We have a set that does not get used a lot.  I think this is a device that would appeal to some teachers’ style and they would wear a set out.  Other teachers would not even see the need.  There are free web based apps that will do basically the same task if needed.
  7. Boxes to hold iPads (or laptops).  $1000 for a plastic box with a $20 USB hub and a $5 lock.  If the school has a wood shop…  We have two of these boxes.  It was grant money with a very restricted purpose so we had no choice.  What a waste of money.  If something with wheels is needed get a shopping basket.  If they need to be locked up, use a closet.  Schools seem to think they need these wheeled mega-buck systems for some reason.  Yes, they are convenient but that is one expensive convenience.  For the price of these conveniences two or three more devices can be placed in student’s hands.  Hope I was not to subtle in my opinion on these.
  8. Standard projectors.  Every room should have some kind of projection device.  Preferably short throw.
  9. Android tablets.  Better than an iPad if the apps needed are in the store.  Cheaper, multiple logins (at least on the Google Nexus).  We should have gone this way for the little kids.  Live and learn.
  10. A $400 convertible with Windows 8 Pro that can survive a student’s backpack.  My dream device.  We do not have any because they do not exist but I can hope can’t I?  I can get fairly nice laptops for that price but the convertible feature always takes the price out of my range.  One of my teachers pointed out an excellent reason for convertibles which I had never considered.  She wanted the device to sit flat on the desk so she could see that the class was on task and see faces.  Laptops with the screen up sort of separates people and hides what the kids are actually doing.  Oh, a minor addition would be software to run a virtual iPad so I have access to all the cool apps.  Wouldn’t Apple love that one!

In all the cases above the opinions are formed by my experience at this one school.  I have talked to other school techs that are having better experience with the iPads but many have the same issues I do.  The schools that are having good luck with the iPads seem to be schools that have a person whose job is supervising iPads.  I did not mention Chromebooks because I do not have any.  The requirement for internet seems to reduce their versatility and I can buy a laptop PC for about the same price.  Schools that I know that are using them are in love with them.  The manageability is apparently a big plus for the techs.

Tomorrow some company is going to come out with the next must have gadget for schools.  It is always interesting that these much have gadgets never seem to be accompanied with educational research that says anything conclusive.  Maybe it is because by the time the research could be done there is a new gadget to sell to schools?  Whatever, I still love them.

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Planning for the future is a pain

February 23, 2014

As the school’s Technology Coordinator I am sort of in charge of the school’s Technology Strategy Plan.  This is the document that the State requires that outlines the school’s technology plan for the future and how we plan to implement it.  Typically the plan is a three year forecast of what we want to do in the way of technology.  Once a year we supposedly go through this and update it.  Over the last few years we have been getting an annual grant that has made the Plan way out of date.  The Plan had us getting 1 or 2 Smartboards a year.  This year we got 7.  Same with laptops and iPads.  The Plan is defunct.  When we had little in the way of technology the plan was fairly easy to build.  So many Smartboards per year, so many iPads or laptops for classrooms per year and so on.  Now we are pretty much saturated.  Now what do we plan for?  Replacements for stuff that is going to wear out?  I am hoping the laptops are going to last five years.  Replacement Smartboards?  Those seem to last about ten years.  Plan for technology that we do not know exists yet?  That one is a bit tricky.  Last night I was sitting on my couch thinking of where we want the kids and the teachers to be tech-wise in 3 years that they are not at now.  I hit a wall.

Most of the kids in the high school have a laptop or iPad.  If they do not I have loaners.  We are close to 1-1 and are presently looking at making it a policy that a kid has to have a device available if a teacher wants them to use it in class.  Pretty much like bringing their book to class, they may not open it but they do have to have it available.  The high school wireless system is up to the projected capacity.  Can’t do much planning there.

As far as classroom tech we are reaching saturation.  Teachers that want or can use Smartboards have them.  All teachers have computers although some need to be replaced due to age.  I do need a replacement plan so there is something that can go in the tech plan.

Those teachers that want a classroom set of devices (iPads and laptops) will have them after this year.

The biggest thing I can see that needs help is curriculum.  That is not something that goes on the Plan but is the most influential and the most influenced by the influx of technology in a classroom.  Thank the powers to be that is not my can of worms.

Can I (or should I) plan for Google Glass?  Might be fun but probably not educationally or economically feasible.  What else is out there I should be planning for?

Planning for technology is always an interesting puzzle.  What works and what does not work to actually improve teaching and learning?  My school is a very low budget private school.  We try to keep our tuition low enough so the average family can afford to send their kids to our school.  As a result I have to be very confident that the technology we buy will generate a big bang for the buck and also have good longevity.  As the school tech expert I feel I should be able to help make these decisions.  I am just stuck in the middle of the puzzle.

Java, here I come

February 21, 2014

I have a tendency to get excited about opportunities for kids.  This year we were offered the opportunity to offer a dual-credit programming course to the kids.  It is worth 3 General Ed college credits.  The course is using Python.  No big deal other than I have to learn Python faster than the kids can learn Python.  Again, no big deal.  So, in my infinite wisdom I started thinking (always a dangerous thing), what would it take to offer a course that will get the kids CS college credits?  After a little email work to the people I know at the University all it would take is to offer a higher level Java course (CSCI 135) using the University syllabus and textbook.  There is the little detail I have not worked with Java in 20 years and that experience gave me a very bad taste for it.  Not the language’s fault, the guy teaching the course was probably a good programmer but he was a terrible teacher.  So this year I am learning Python.  For next year, if this course flies, I have to learn Java and I have to learn to spell nifty words like “polymorphism”.  (I just have to keep in my mind “it is for the kids, it is for the kids”.)  Luckily there is a diamond in the mud.  The guy that is presently teaching the University’s CSCI 135 is a friend who is will to guide me through the trial and tribulations of Java and through understanding all the wiz bang words involved with a college level CS programming course.  Another big plus is I can get the previous edition of the textbook for about $3 a pop.

Running in the background of this whole thing is the desire to modernize the programming part of our CS curriculum.  If this course can be set up it will give me four solid semester long programming courses.  Our present Programming 1 of Scratch and Small Basic, Prog II a dual credit Python course, Prog III a dual credit Java course and Prog IV an app/game writing course using Corona.  I have taught the Corona course as a Prog II/III before and it was difficult.  The knowledge to write a decent app, even a simple game, requires more than knowing a language.  The kids that wanted to dedicate the time could do something with it but the average kid struggled.

As a private school we are in direct competition with the public school for students.  Offering two dual-credit programming courses is a big arrow in our quiver.  I doubt if students will be lining up at the door to get in because of these but if we attract one or two new kids it is worth it.

This is going to be a real busy summer.

A live and learn weekend.

February 18, 2014

This was sort of a live and learn weekend in the practice of grading programming assignments.  With this new Python course I am having the kids turn in a lot of small programming assignments.  They turn them in digitally to a shared folder or they email them to me.  No problem there.  The problem was I did not specify the format for naming the assignments.  Big booboo.  Sometimes I miss the forest for the trees.  Some kids built a folder with their name and dropped their assignments in there.  Some put their name and what the assignment was (Bob draw star).  Some put their name and the problem number.  Some did variations of all and were not consistent.  What a mess.  I spent an hour just organizing the assignment names so I could grade them by assignment instead of by kid.  Like I said, live and learn.

I was afraid the kids would plagiarize the heck out of each other with all these little assignments.  They work in a fairly small room so it is easy to copy someone else’s code and I also promote peer assistance.  No problem there.  I did not realize there were so many ways of coding up a simple assignment and have the code make sense and work all at the same time.  Cool.  Kids I know got help from others still managed to make it their own which seemed amazing.

I also managed to get in a day of snowboarding.  I had been having some bad back and leg pain from a couple of ruptured disks (1974, stupid plane was too close to the ground when I jumped out).  I was afraid snowboarding was going to aggravate the heck out of it.  No problem.  The only issue was I was way out of shape from being on the couch for four weeks of back pain.  I feel I can now get back to working out and running without my leg feeling like it is on fire.  I have a half marathon scheduled for this Saturday. I am an idiot but if I wait to heal completely so I am painless, I will be dead of old age.  I am also an idiot for doing a half marathon in February.  Temperature is supposed to be twenty-eight and snowing.  I am a warm weather runner (I like it at ninety degrees) so this is really not my cup of tea.  What the heck, if you are not going to live life, quit.  The run is around Seeley Lake mostly on dirt roads so a thaw would be much worse that the cold.  I figure 4 or 5 upper body layers and a fanny pack to store it in if I heat up and I should be good.  So long as it does not blizzard I will be a happy camper.  If I start to get cold, run faster!

College students = boring; high school students = ain’t

February 11, 2014

Well, I went over and sat in on the Python programming course at the local university today.  I had forgotten how boring college students can be.  The instructor was good.  Enthusiastic, knowledgeable and a good presenter but getting the room to respond to his questions was like pulling teeth.  There were between 20 and 30 students in the room.  They all were listening but just not really there.  High school kids have spoiled me; there is always somebody willing to contribute even if it is off topic.  I now remember why I got out of the full-time college teaching job.  High school is so much more fun and challenging.

Continuing with Python

February 8, 2014

I have now been teaching with Python for three weeks.  That is nowhere near long enough to have a solid understanding of the language but it is long enough to start to form an opinion as a teaching language.  As a language it is great.  It is simple but has all the features of a powerful language.  It is not something I would try in a Programming I course, Scratch and Small Basic are much better for the intro level.  It is also not a language for a beginning programming teacher who is not familiar with it.  It is not plug-and-play.  Simple details like finding an editor, getting modules in the right folder and overcoming the Mac/PC differences make it a bit of a pain.  Ah, yes, the Mac/PC thing.  All my programming students have a laptop of their own to use, either their private laptop or one I check out to them.  I want those with Macs to use them, it is the laptop they are going to use at college so it should be the laptop they use whenever possible.  Python acts differently on a Mac than a PC.  Small differences but differences none the less.  One of the Mac users was trying to fill a rectangle.  Several other rectangles in the program filled just fine but this particular rectangle would not fill.  The assignment was due so he emailed me the assignment to grade.  I opened it on a PC and the rectangle filled.  No change in code, just a change in Mac to PC.  Weird.  For a kid (and the teacher) this can get a bit frustrating and also can make both a bit leery of what else is not going to work the same.

This is a good language to again test how well I can learn a language on the fly.  Every language I teach with I have learned in this way.  I am convinced this is the way programming teachers nation-wide learn the language they teach with (unless they are the rare programming teacher that has a degree in CS or they came from the programming industry to teaching).  Since I am used to having to learn my teaching languages this way it is not a problem.  Python, at least at the level I am teaching it, is an easy learn.  The book I am using, “How to Think Like a Computer Scientist: Learning with Python 3 (RLE)”, is an excellent starting point.  I do need to learn some more whistles and bells that will interest the kids.  Something like stop action animation with sprite sheets to go with the house the kids just built with the turtle.  The module is there, I just have to learn how to use it and see if it is simple enough for the average kid.  I am still thinking this semester of Python is just a lead in to a semester of game writing with Corona.

The local university is offering the same Python course I am teaching.  This is their first time offering the course.  Previously it was a Visual Basic course.  Monday I think I will go sit in on the course.  The guy teaching it has a “Dr.” in front of his name so I will assume he knows Python.  This will be the first time I have observed a college level course since the mid 90’s where I was actually taking the course.  It is going to be a little weird to sit in on a course on something I should know something about.  At the moment I am feeling a little nervous about going.  I have only observed two programming teachers previously.  One teaches Java and attracts very few students to a very high level program, the other is my co-teacher who teaches only the Programming I kids and his expertise is not programming.  It should prove interesting and, hopefully, enlightening.