Is it my imagination or… Educational Technology

slowdownIs it my imagination or have things started to stagnate in the world of Educational Technology? The leaps and bounds by which we were moving a few years back seem to have become baby steps. People’s blog post seem to lack the excitement over technology they use to have; Twitter threads seem to just rehash the same old Edtech ideas and there hasn’t been a new application released in at least two years that are worth being excited about. Even the hardware we get these days seems to lack any sort of groundbreaking innovation.

It would seem to me that we have hit the wall in the world of educational technology and I am not sure when we can expect the next great leap forward. Perhaps this is just a sign that the world of Educational Technology is maturing. EdTech has become mundane and boring, not unlike the way my own children view my existence.  I serve a purpose, but I am hardly something that is worth getting excited about, but this lull may actually be a blessing. IF we have entered a time of respite from the never-ending bombardment of the latest and greatest in education, perhaps we can now settle down and begin the hard work of developing the curriculum, resources and skills necessary to make effective use of the technology we have.

One of the biggest battles we Edtech “experts” have encountered over the past several years, was convincing classroom teachers to try new technology, but classroom teachers didn’t have the time or inclination to keep up with the merry-go-round of technological change. Many teachers felt it was a fool’s game to even try, but with this slowdown, we actually get a chance to catch-up.  The irony here is that this slowdown, might end up being the opportunity we have been waiting for to move ahead with educational technology.

If we are to capitalize on this EdTech lull, a concerted effort will have to be made, in four specific areas: Leadership, Teachers, Resources & Curriculum and Professional development. It is in these interrelated areas where the use of educational technology needs to be planned for and ultimately implemented in an effective and responsible manner.

  1. Leadership – Someone, or a group of someone’s, need to take advantage of this time we have been given and actively create the opportunities that teachers need, to begin to learn how to best utilize the technology they have at their disposal. This leadership needs to come from government, administration and from the teachers themselves through their Specialist Associations and within school districts. If leadership fails to meet their responsibility to teachers, by not creating  time for collaboration, professional development and mentorship; when the next surge of technological advancement comes, educators will only be left even further behind.
  2. Teachers – Ultimately the successful implementation of educational technology into the classroom will be up to teachers and in order for this to happen, they will have to avail themselves of the opportunities that their leadership provide them. Most teachers I know are more than happy to learn more about how they can utilize technology more effectively in their teaching. When willingness meets opportunity, progress is made.
  3.  Resources and Curriculum – Now is the time to create the resources and curriculum teachers need to properly utilize modern technology in the classroom. Since we are no longer chasing the latest in technological advancements, we have the opportunity to develop the resources and curriculum needed to properly integrate technology in the classroom. The question then becomes, who will do this development? For jurisdictions where curriculum and resources are no longer developed or distributed by an education ministry, this development will have to be done by teachers themselves, or by third-party curriculum developers.
  4. Professional development – As I mentioned with leadership, teachers need to be provided time and opportunity to develop the skills necessary to effectively implement technology in their classroom. There has always been opportunities in the realm educational technology, but much of it plays to the converted and does not reach the non-techie teacher. With this break in the EdTech gotta-have madness, there is an opportunity to reach the masses and not come across looking like you’re just schlepping some new pyramid-scheme product. The most important part about this professional development is that it cannot come in the form of big glitzy conferences. It has to be provided on a local level, aimed at providing practical applications for all classroom teachers.

Now with all this said… Maybe I am way out to lunch. Perhaps we are still moving ahead at light speed, but my four points of EdTech integration still stand. Without proper attention in the four aforementioned areas. Education Technology will never become the domain of the mainstream teacher.

 

Christy Clark promises tech training in schools

Image Credit: University of the Fraser Valley

Finally the British Columbia government is taking the lead in bringing some focus on technology to the classroom. This week’s announcement by Christy Clark was welcome news to those of us who are advocates technology and its use in the classroom. It is a glimmer of hope that technology in education might get some much-needed support and resources. The reality is that teachers are already teaching digital imaging, robotics, 3D modeling & printing and yes even coding. The problem is, they are doing it without any supporting curriculum or resources. For every classroom where children are learning about technology, there is a teacher who has put an immense amount of time and effort creating their own curriculum and acquiring resources. They don’t need an announcement, they need support.

If the ministry is truly in the process of developing a new Computer Science/Information Technology Curriculum to be introduced next year, I would love to hear from those who have been developing it. Of all the “wired” people I know in #bced, I have heard absolutely NOTHING about this new curriculum. Granted, I might have been purposely kept out of the loop, but I even know some respectable people who have heard nothing about this new “tech training in schools” initiative.

If Christy is listening, here is what I hope comes of her announcement.

  • The hardware we need to teach technical skills
  • The training for teachers who want to get involved in digital education
  • The money to subscribe to the excellent platforms already in existence for coding
  • The opportunity to have a voice in the planning process (if there is any)
  • The time for appropriate implementation of curriculum

Being a cynic, I have my doubts that much will ever come of this announcement but I can always hope.

Read more about the announcement here

EDCI 569 – Major Project Summary

So here we are… At the end of another term and I am suppose to be all the better for it. All enlightened and edumacated and stuff. Unfortunately I don’t really feel as such. This term was a struggle for me both academically and personally. The loss of my mother just prior to Christmas followed by two friends in rapid succession after Christmas, took the piss out of me and I had a great deal of difficulty focusing on much of anything. None the less, I did manage to eek out a couple useful things from this term’s smorgasbord of learnin, in spite of all the muck and emotional mire that was my winter term.

My learning project was to go out and learn some Java Script, or perhaps I should say learn more Java Script, for my own personal growth. The idea was that I would search out and find the best learn to code platform on the web, hammer through a bunch of tutorials and somehow become a Java Script Guru. As it turned out, I failed miserably.

Fortunately, as someone who is highly skilled at the art of failure, I have come to know how to get the most out of the smouldering ashes of my learning. From this experience, I took this opportunity to furthering the learning of my students.

What I ended up doing was looking closely at 3 questions with regard to teaching coding in Schools.

  1. Why are we trying to teach kids code?
  2. Which students are best suited to learning code?
  3. What method or platform is best for learning to code?

The first question looks at the current darling of the 21st Century Learning. Learning to Code! You hear it talked about in the media like it is the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT SKILL any child could possibly acquire before they walk out the doors of their grade school, but what I found is that many people don’t get beyond the headlines. Ones such as How Advanced Computer Skills Could Really Boost Your Career or Coding is the Must Have Job Skill of the Future

Many people interpret headlines such as these to mean that code is a must have employability skill rather than a means by which to develop a set of cognitive skills that will be useful in an ever more technically complex workplace.

People need to understand that coding is a skill just as literacy and numeracy are skills. Those traditional skills are critical to gainful employment, but they are not “employability skills” per se, They are part of a suite of skills that allow an individual to think, communicate, create and do. Coding skills are simply becoming part of that suite of skills that make an individual employable.

So what is a coding skill then. Well the one that gets bandied about the most in learn to code circles is “computational thinking” It is essentially a way to approach complex problems by breaking them down into their component parts and then finding solutions to the problem through physical or digital means. Whether this means someone does the programming to solve the problem or just the critical thinking behind the solution, computational thinking is how people “think” in a digital environment. Google has a nice little page on What is Computational Thinking. Check it out here.

If we are going to continue to move toward and live in a digitally rich environment, we are going to need people to understand how that environment works. Unless of course a giant solar flare wipes out every computer system in the world, but this is unlikely and therefore, this is why learning to code has become important. This article is quite good Why every child should learn to code”

The second question I mulled over was, which students are best suited to learning coding languages? I failed miserably in trying to improve my Java Script skills and for all intents and purposes, I wanted to learn. So what kind of student will be successful at learning this skill?

Upon looking at this question a little deeper, it would appear that the answer is this. It depends.  There are any number of variables at play here. Of course an individual’s interest and natural inclination are going to be be a significant determinant in how successful they are, BUT in a classroom setting that intrinsic motivator isn’t necessarily the most important thing.

c+

Figure 1.

What I have found is this. The key to engaging the greatest number of students in a coding assignment or exercise is largely dependant on the platform used. My students who are what I will refer to as “gifted coders” will sit down and spend all class looking at something like Figure.1 and be happy as clams, but that is only a small number of students are at this level. What is more, only a small number of students will acquire this level of skill, but this doesn’t have to exclude other kids.

This leads us to The Third Question I was looking at. What method or platform is the best for learning code.

With visual programming platforms, such as MIT Scratch, coding or computational thinking doesn’t have to be the sole domain of those who are able to understand and write the gobbledygook we know as “code”. Sure being able to write complex strings of code is infinitely more powerful than a platform such as MIT Scratch but that isn’t the point.

Visual coding platforms give me as the teacher the ability to expose and engage the entire class to the kind of thinking that goes into writing code and THAT is what we are trying to accomplish. I am not trying to crank out programmers, I am trying to foster thinking skills.

By providing a variety of coding options to my students, I am more likely to capture the attention and interest of a far larger number of students and provide them the opportunity to acquire and reinforce the 21st Century thinking skills we are being told our students need.

Let us look at the various “Coding” platforms I used with my kids this year.

  • Power Point – No Power Point is not a coding platform but my god you can make some fun games with it AND it gets students into thinking like a programmer. Very visual and fun, kids will spend weeks on a single game.
  • MIT Scratch – Visual programming platform that allows for students of all levels to beginning creating animations and games using blocks of code. We build a Flappy Birds game and a few others over the course of 3 weeks and the kids enjoyed it.
  • Kodu Game Lab – A visual programming platform created by Microsoft to get kids involved in coding. Students can create excellent games which they can then export and play on their Xbox if they wish. Some of my kids LOVED it others thought it was a little lame… I liked it, so I must be lame.
  • Connect 2 – Visual programming platform with which students can create 2D HTML 5 games quickly and relatively easily, but students are forced to think very systematically in order to make their games work properly. Although they are not “coding” per se they are using the same type of thinking as someone who is writing strings of code.
  • Game Maker – Similar to Connect 2 in that there is a visual drag and drop element to the game creation but with Game Maker students can begin to use the platforms own scripting language GML, have more control over their creation. The GML language is similar in many ways to the C languages and Java Script so what students learn in-game maker transfers over to these languages rather well.
  • Unity 3D – A ridiculously powerful game making platform that uses Java Script and C# as the main scripting languages that is supports. C# is the more advanced language and is infinitely more powerful than Java Script. Although they say Unity 3D is appropriate for beginner to expert users, only a handful of students in my two ICT classes ventured into this territory.
  • Kahn Academy – A nice little set of Java Script tutorials that I would recommend for any beginner. Videos are clear and engaging and the interface allows the user to see how the code they write changes the object they are working on.
  • Code Academy – I refer to Code Academy as the best drill and kill learn to code platform out there. It is FREE, has tons of content and is excellent for reinforcing skills but it is not a very inspiring platform. Most kids lose interest in this platform in fairly short order. With that said. If you want to learn to code on the cheap, you need a code academy account.
  • Code School – We have only dabbled in using code school simply because it costs $$. They have a HUGE selection of courses and some of them are free and worth checking out before you spend money on a subscription.

So what does all this have to do with my learning project? Well, I came to understand that knowing Java Script or “gobbledygook” isn’t the goal here. Whether it is me or my students, what we need to get exposure to is the kind of thinking that is behind coding or programming. Prior to this exercise in futility, I thought as many do, that understanding and writing strings of code was the goal. Now I understand that computational thinking isn’t the sole domain of the programmer. It is a thought process that spans far more than a 20 inch HD computer screen.

Why are we teaching coding?

I was at a dinner party this weekend at a friend’s place. The usual crowd had assembled, mostly friends of friends and acquaintances. We snacked, we chatted; we drank, we chatted; we ate, we chatted and then we went home.  Nothing momentous occurred just a bunch of 40 somethings getting together and talking about their kids, work and the ever so faint light of retirement on the horizon.

One of the individuals there (I will call him Paul) I had met before but never really spoke to other than an obligatory “Hi! Pleased to meet you…” at another one of these little soirees. This time however, I got to have a good 60 minute chat with him over a couple glasses of Shiraz and a GREAT artichoke dip.

As it turns out, we both went to UVic  at the same time. We may have even been in some of the same classes, like the PASCAL one I dropped but he managed to complete. In fact so successful was he with learning PASCAL, he went on to get his computer science degree. Now he does (or did) all sorts of programming stuff for a living. He is currently a big wig at a moderately sized tech company and has others do the coding.

As we poured the second glass of a nice little WAYNE GRETZKY OKANAGAN – CABERNET SAUVIGNON SYRAH 2013 (yes we drank Wine Gretzky), I figured I would tell him what I was trying to do with my students in getting them to learn Java Script, and instead of saying “Oh Cool!… Tell me more!” he simply said “Why?”

I was thrown for quite a loop by this response because I had been led to believe that learning how to code was the must know skill for the ages. As important as ones ABC’s or 123’s. That every employer on the face of this earth wanted our young people to learn how to code. That our children’s futures depended on it for virtually every job there could ever be, from the front counter people at McDonald’s to the Rocket Scientists at NASA.

Ok admittedly I am being a bit dramatic, but you get the picture.

But why was a computer science guy, someone who obviously finds coding to be an important skill, saying “why?” to my super amazingly innovative teaching initiative. I was counting on a Prime Minister’s Award of Teaching Excellence for this one. Then again, the way I have been bashing good old Steve on twitter, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get a room without a view in some CISIS hotel someplace, but I digress.

So why did my new good buddy Paul say “why?” when I told him about my little coding initiative? Well upon further discussion I discovered that he has no issue with teaching kids who want to learn, but as a foundational skill that every kid should know? Well lets just say he is not convinced that such a thing is necessary or even a good idea. As he puts it, there are programmers and then there are PROGRAMMERS. “We don’t need huge numbers of mediocre programmers. We need highly skilled people who can do great things with code” He went on to say “I bet the really talented kids in your class are already way beyond learning Java Script and those are the kids who will be getting hired when they get out and start looking for jobs.” He was right.

The way Paul seems to see it, is that not everyone is cut out for programming, so why would we be giving all kids the idea that programming is a career they should pursue. By the end of the last glass of wine and most of the artichoke dip, what I had gotten from the conversation was this. Not everyone can be Wayne Gretzky or even a third string NHL player for that matter, so why would be setting a kid up to be something they do not have the skills or inclination for? Really it makes perfect sense to me. Not every kid is into math or science or literature or geology or or or. That is just the way things are. I would never force my child to pursue coding just because someone says they should.

Regardless of my little conversation with Paul, I will carry on with my coding initiative. Most of the kids in my ICT class have the inclination to at least try coding for a while and who knows, perhaps a few of them will become a super famous programmers that open their own wineries when they retire and sell half-decent bottles of wine.