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May 7

What Covid19 has taught about parents, kids, teachers and the education system.

Posted on Thursday, May 7, 2020 in Education

Corona Virus

Well, here we are shuffling through our 6th week back at school since Spring Break ended and a few things have become abundantly clear about our education system. First and foremost we were not prepared for a pandemic. Yah I know, I have a penchant for stating the obvious, but within the BIG obvious lesson, there are all sorts of little lessons we can gleen from this Pandemic. Some we already knew and some not so much, so sit back and enjoy a light analysis of what Covid19 has taught us about parents, kids, teachers and the education system.

Teachers Need To Digitize Their Instruction

If I had of walked into the first staff meeting this past September and announced that “You will all be expected to have your instructional materials digitized and your online classrooms set up and ready to go, because there may be an outside chance that you will have to teach from home this year…” I would have been laughed out of that meeting, perhaps even had the odd cookie or coffee thrown at me as I ran dodging and weaving from a hostile room.

I have been a Digital Access advocate in education my entire career and although educators have been slowly wading into the digital domain these past 24 years, Digital Access has never been a priority for most. Online classrooms, digital resources and all that is involved with the digitization of teaching and learning is seen by many as an attack on the teaching profession. If you digitized your teaching, you were betraying your profession. Then along comes Covid19…

We (educators) no longer have the luxury of sheltering in place in an effort to protect our profession from the digitization. Like it or not, Covid19 has forced us all to embrace the tools that make Digital Access to learning possible.

We Like Our Children In School

As a teacher, you sometimes feel that the world looks at school as a nothing more than a necessary evil. A place you send your kids, not because you want to, but because someone said somewhere along the line that kids have to be in school.

Since the pandemic started, I have seen a noticeable transition from people begrudgingly accepting the time we spend in school, to unconditional acclamation of our public school system. Suddenly the discourse has gone from grumbling about our schools and teachers to “OH MY GOD HOW DO THEY DO THIS DAY AFTER DAY… I can’t wait until schools are back in session?!”

COVID19 has focused some much needed light on just how dependant our society is on our public school systems. We have a fresh understanding that without our schools, modern society does not run very well. We depend on our schools to not only educate, but to separate parents from their progeny so they can work, socialize and be something other than Mom and or Dad.

Kids Need to Have Independent Learning Skills

I have been trumpeting the need for kids to be Free Agent Learners for years now. Not only has it never been easier to learn something on your own, it is a required skill in today’s modern workplace. Learning waits for no one and those who can take advantage of this opportunity, will rule the world.

What Covid19 has illustrated to me, is that far too many kids do not have the Independent Learning Skills needed to take charge of their own learning. Our students still depend on someone in the same room telling them what to think, what to do and how to do it.

Where do we go from here? Well… We have the technology and now that Covid19 has illustrated the need for arms length learning, I think students will quickly acquire the Independent Learning Skills necessary to be Free Agent Learners. This is NOT to say “get rid of teachers” it is simply a pragmatic expectation in a world where it is possible for kids to be independent learners, but also a world where the ability to learn without the guiding hand of a teacher in the room is a necessity.

Some Kids Don’t Need Me

As a teacher, I like to think I am important and that my students need me around. The reality is that in some cases, I am just in their way. I have always know this, but this Pandemic has certainly shown me that I need to just step back and provide those students who have the aforementioned Independent Learning Skills, the opportunity to direct their own learning.

Granted my teaching area (Information Technology), lends itself to more independent learning situations and I already do this to some extent, but I am thinking I may need to implement the IDS (Independent Directed Study) model a little more liberally for some of my students. When you think of it, who am I to hold a kid back? Giddy up and see what they can create without me!

Schools Do So Much More Than Just Educate

I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone, but schools are a conglomeration of so much more than just book learning. Schools have been quietly moving towards being one stop shops for youth and their families for years. Unfortunately there has never really been any official recognition of the non learning services provided on a day to day basis. Kids and families depend on schools to socialize, to counsel, to discipline, to protect, to feed, to provide drug and alcohol intervention… The reality is that many of our kids are finding this pandemic to be more than just a gap in their learning. There is so much that goes on in our schools that is not even funded never mind recognized, yet our kids and their families depend on these services and connections that their schools provide.

Conclusion

Forever the pessimist, I will guess not much will change once we are back to “normal” in public schools. We may have to juggle school schedules, teachers will be better prepared to deliver curriculum online, but our new normal will ultimately look a lot like the old normal. The curriculum will not have changed. Our need to house children someplace safe while parents are doing the things that parents do will still exist. Teachers will look at their roll as teacher the same, and I am not sure the world is ready to let kids be Free Agent Learners.

Covid19 will undoubtedly remain in our memories for sometime and it will change the way we do many things. Unfortunately when it comes to our schools… I don’t think we will notice much of a change in 18 months time.

Mar 29

Free Agent Learning In The Age of Covid 19

Posted on Sunday, March 29, 2020 in EdTech

I first heard the term Free Agent Learner in 2012 at the inaugural Ed Tech Teacher conference in Boston. Keynote speaker Tony Wagner was speaking on necessity of supporting and promoting the idea of creating Free Agent Learners. If I recall correctly, he felt that Free Agent Learning was the way of the future and essentially the only way anyone will be able to keep up with advances in the workplace. When I brought the concept back to my school and shared with colleagues, many recoiled in horror at the notion of encouraging students to take learning into their own hands!? The idea was considered utter madness and I was labeled a pedagogical heretic shortly thereafter. I am quite sure if I brought up the idea again just two weeks ago, I would have been quickly put in my place again; however, things have suddenly changed with Covid 19 pandemic.

In an effort to stem the spread of a rather virulent virus, the closure of all public petri dishes we call schools has been ordered. This sudden shuttering of our public learning spaces has left teachers and students to wonder how does the education system continue? Enter Free Agent Learning.

Let me express at this point, that Free Agent Learning doesn’t mean the absence of “teacher”. It is simply the expectation that an individual has the skills to embark on a learning journey in whole or in part without being lead along by the nose by a teacher. The act of free agent learning is a skill set, not a master plan to eliminate teachers. (there are other things on the horizon that will do that, but I digress) Now imagine IF we could feel confident that students had the agency to direct their own learning at home with a little digital guidance from their teacher during this time of self isolation. I would suggest there would not be quite so many teachers, parents or kids saying to themselves “OH MY GOD WHAT DO WE DO NOW!”

With that said, I understand there are some grades and some subjects where the practicality of depending on kids being “Free Agent Learners” is simply impossible. Grades 1 – 4, I cannot conceive how it could possibly work. Primary grades need the guiding hand of a teacher. High school teachers who are expected to shepherd kids through prescribed academic curriculum, I get it. It is difficult if not impossible to ensure all the boxes are checked and the kids have the skills they need to move on, but what if more of our kids had the skills to take on the challenge of guiding their own learning. What if you could be confident in your students’ ability to discover, investigate, find, answer, expand, elaborate… on their own? Imagine how much easier the current Covid 19 situation would be for teachers, parents and students.

Now this doesn’t mean there are not issues with Free Agent Learning. There are a number of issues that come along with this type of learning.

  1. Many kids come to us and all they want to know is what will they be tested on. They don’t want to take on learning for themselves, because it is time consuming and difficult. They are so conditioned to being lead along every step off the way, memorizing what they have been told and then being tested on it, that they have a great deal of difficulty breaking out of that box.
  2. There is a lot of training involved. When I get kids in grade 9, we start the year with a lot of needy kids that I have to lead along step by step, day by day, week by week. If truth be know, It isn’t until the end of grade 10 when most kids finally get to the point where they find an interest and can pursue it independently with a little guidance from me. There is some intense teacher involvement in getting kids to the point of being able to Free Agent Learn.
  3. Many hard core Free Agent Learners have a very pointed view on what they are learning and how they are learning it. They often become ardent disciples of a topic, a method, a piece of hardware or software… They get so fixated on how and what they have learned that it is next to impossible to introduce alternate points of view or methods of doing something. However, These are usually kids who have been Free Agent Learning long before they ever get to me.
  4. It can be difficult to get students beyond the superficial. Kids will learn something on their own, but they don’t learn much beyond the basics and then they jump onto something else. Free Agent Learning takes effort, time and perseverance. It is then my job to lead them further into the unknown.
  5. It can be difficult to assess a Free Agent Learner. When you set a student loose to learn something, you are not in control of the curriculum and it can be hard to determine what it is the student has actually learned. It is important to figure out what their baseline is and then track what it is they have learned or perhaps a better measure is recognizing what they have created.
  6. Insert other…

Like I said, Free Agent Learning is a set of skills that allows kids to engage in learning without constant daily contact with an adult dragging them along. It is not a perfect learning model, but the Covid 19 crisis has just put a bullet point on the need for kids to have these skills. Free Agent Learning is a life skill, a job skill and now a Social Distancing skill.

 

Additional Reading

Free agent learners: the new career model
Students as ‘Free Agent Learners’

Mar 26

Online Learning – Questions Answered

Posted on Thursday, March 26, 2020 in EdTech, Education, online learning

Well… It wasn’t suppose to happen quite like this, but Online Learning is going to be a significant part of the learning landscape for the next little while because of the Covid19 pandemic. There has been lots of resistance over the years from teachers that feel online learning undermines the profession, but now that it is the only way to reach our students, it has now become necessary like it or not.

As we try to migrate (in a HUGE rush) to using online learning tools, the decision on what tools to use comes down to two main things, Student Privacy and Teacher Safety. We need to ensure that nothing a student does is accessible to anyone outside of the school district and secondly we need to ensure that teachers are not putting themselves at risk by providing a digital learning experience that cannot be controlled or monitored for appropriate use. The safest way to look at any digital resource and ensure that you are doing what is “right”, is to ask yourself, “Has this approved by my school district?” If the answer is “No!”, don’t use it. If you are not sure, inquire. If you would like to use it, ask your district to put it through their vetting process to ensure it is appropriate to use.

Although the above is pretty straight forward, I still get “What about this…?” questions all the time, so I will go over some of the most frequent questions I have gotten and am getting now as we venture into this uncharted territory. Keep in mind, my answers to these questions may not be universal, so if in doubt, check with your administrator.

Can I use my Google Drive?

No! Do not use your personal Google drive or any other cloud drive (Drop Box, One Drive or other). These personal drives are super handy and I have my own personal account with Google Drive, One Drive and Drop Box, but I do not use any of them for teaching. The reason for this is that these drives get scraped for data about the user and once that data is scraped you essentially lose control of what gets done with it. We don’t want student information being scraped full stop.

Why is using the school district Google Drive OK?

Using the google drive your school district has assigned to you is fine because… They assigned it to you to use. With Google Apps For Education or GAFE, student data is protected behind what Google refers to as the Vault. Student files are not available to Google’s data scraping algorithms and therefore student information is not harvested. Your school district has done all the legwork to set up the GAFE ecosystem, so you can use it without worrying about your student data.

Can I receive completed assignments by email?

Yes, you can collect student assignments by email as long as you are using your school district email account. All communication between you and your students, their parents or their guardians should be done using your school email account. Personal accounts can put student data at risk AND puts the teacher at risk if some communication between you and a student or parent goes sideways.

Can I create a Facebook group to communicate with my class?

No no and no. Do not use Facebook as a platform for conducting your class. Nothing about using Facebook groups meets privacy or safety requirements of an online learning environment.

Can I share folders within the GAFE environment with my students?

Yes and No. If you are working in a GAFE environment you shouldn’t need to share folders. Create an assignment and let the Google Classroom manage the assignments and folders. If you start sending out folder links to students it is onerous to manage AND once you send that link to a student, you risk losing control of what goes in it and who has access to it.

Can I create a website for my students to access their lessons?

Yes you can create a website to post your lessons on BUT… Do do not require student to log to access them and do not provide a chat or comment feature on which kids, parents or strangers can communicate. If anyone wants to communicate with you, provide your school district email address. If you are interested, Weebly is super easy to set up.

Can I use my twitter account to communicate with kids?

Yes and No. Technically there is nothing wrong with pushing information out to kids and parents via twitter, just don’t follow kids or parents back. My advice is to only use it as a means to broadcast information. Twitter should not be used for two way communication.

Can I require a student to create an account for a resource I want them to use?

No, you may not unless it is a resource that your school district has approved for student use. There are grey areas around this issue, but they are complex and convoluted and it is best to steer clear. I you think it is a fantastic resource, get your school district to approve it.

Can I video conference with my students?

This one is different district to district so check with your administration, but common sense and caution should steer you away from video conferencing with students. Just think about it this way. Do you really want to see the inside of your students bedrooms? Remember there is no unseeing what happens on the other end of that video feed. Sure 95% of the time nothing bad will happen, but do you want to be part of the 5%?


As you go forth and venture into the online learning space, simply ask yourself two questions

  1. Is my students’ data/information at risk?
  2. Am I putting myself at risk?

If either of these two questions come with a yes or even a maybe, take a pass.

Jun 23

Anna Lytical – Making learning to code a little less binary

Posted on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in coding, EdTech

 

When you think of learning to code, it is unlikely you have ever put that thought together with the world of Drag, but that is exactly what Billy Jacobson and his alter ego, Anna Lytical have done. He/She/They/Them… (sorry but I am not sure which pronoun they prefer), have put together a Drag Queen inspired Youtube channel dedicated to teaching kids or anyone else who is interested, how to code. It is a rather ingenious concept when you think of it, coupling the binary world of computer programming with the non-binary world of Drag, it just seems like the two were meant to be together. 

The great thing about the concept is that it isn’t just a gimmick. Anna or Billy, actually know what they are talking about. Billy works as a Developer Programs Engineer at Google and it would seem Google is totally on board with the whole idea. With an entertaining idea in hand and the blessing of Google, Anna Lytical may be on her way to becoming the darling of the learn to code movement.

As an IT (Information Technology) teacher, I am inundated on a daily basis with the latest and greatest Learn to Code resources the world has to offer, but quite frankly, none of them venture too far off the tried and true “Hello World” formula that has been used for decade or more now. Anna Lytica on the other hand… Well lets just say she looks to be taking a slightly different approach. With her in drag persona and a few cleverly placed but very applicable gay straight references in the first video, Anna instantly reached a segment of the population that prefers not to be bored to death when learning to code, or simply identify with Anna’s non binary gender identity. 

With all this said, Anna Lytical has only produced one video to date and it is yet to be seen if she will continue to capture the attention of would be programmers, but she is off to a good start. The first video was great in laying out the general concepts of how code works by touching on inputs – outputs, on – off, gay – straight, 1’s – 0’s… and introduced us to block coding (scratch). Now we will have to see where she goes from here. It will be interesting how she approaches more complex concepts and what platform she will use as an IDE. 

Now for the big question. Would I use the Beyond Binary videos in my grade 9 IT classroom? Well I don’t tend to teach directly by video tutorial, so it would never be part of my day to day instruction, but making it part of my selection of independent study resources?…  Depending how the video series progresses, it is a possibility. 

Check out the first video below and feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section. 

Nov 5

Technology in the classroom – What my numbers say

Posted on Monday, November 5, 2018 in Ed Tech Teachers

Years ago, while discussing technology in the classroom with a senior colleague of mine, he proclaimed that, “The best and most transformative piece of education technology I have ever seen in all my years teaching, is the overhead projector!” His reasoning for placing the lowly overhead projector at the pinnacle of the EdTech pyramid was pretty solid. It was simple to use, it improved his ability to efficiently relay information and if something went wrong (ie. burnt out light bulb) he could fix it himself.

If we take these three criteria and use it as a lens through which we view educational technology today, much of what we consider “good education technology” would certainly fail to meet his definition. In fact, many school districts employ digital integration specialists to help other teachers implement technology because those three criteria, efficiency, simplicity and fixability are not hallmarks of EdTech today.

I am going into my fifth year as a one of those Digital Integration Specialist (DIS) and whether by prudence or premonition, my DIS partner(s) and I have been keeping track of what kind of technology related assistance the teachers in our school have needed over the years. Recently we hit the 1000th support contact and as mundane as the numbers appear, they tell a tale of teachers’ relationship with technology in the classroom.

For the purpose of this post I have distilled the Digital Support Categories as seen in the chart below. They reflect the kind of help that is asked for on a day-to-day basis. Keep in mind, these numbers are not precise. We did our best to keep track of all our support contacts, but some were not logged. With that said, I believe that the numbers accurately represent our work.

GAFE Average- 25.7%

High: 2015/16 – 34.9% 

Low: 2017/18 – 11.6%

Our school district became a GAFE district 4 years ago and as Google Apps For Education evolves so does the needs of our teachers. In the beginning, our time revolved around student logins and classroom setup. Now that the majority of our teachers are comfortable with the basics of GAFE, our time is used for answering “Is it possible…?” questions as it relates to providing students with different ways to demonstrating learning in the GAFE environment.

What is interesting about the stage we are in now, is that some of our teachers have become GAFE “experts” in their own right. They have created their own unique ways of using Google Classroom and for the most part it seems teachers have become comfortably competent with the platform.

Tech Support average 35.1%

High: 2017/18 – 40.1%

Low: 2014/15 – 32.1%

This remains the most significant part of our job. If something isn’t working, we are the go to people to get things up and running. “My projector isn’t working”, “My student can’t log in!”, “YouTube won’t play”, “Someone took my HDMI cable!”… They are all on the fly request for help from teachers who are usually in a panic. The teacher’s lesson is hinging on that piece of technology or media working and if it doesn’t, then people get upset.

This type of support doesn’t seem to be in line with what the Digital Integration Support position is all about, but it is vitally important to the success of any effort to make a school more technologically oriented. If you want teachers to use technology, it had better work and if it doesn’t, you had better have someone around that can make it work before 30 kids walk into that classroom.

Government Data Management System average – 10.4%

High: 2014/15 – 15.7%

Low: 2016/17 – 4%

Back in the day, keeping track of kids seemed to be simpler. Was the kid in attendance, yes or no? Mark it on an attendance sheet. Did they complete their homework, yes or no? Mark it in your grade book. everything went into those red coil planners where the information remained until it was time to share it out three times a year when report cards came out.

Now every last bit of information is managed by a Ministry issued Data Management System that always seems to be a throwback to the previous decade in appearance and functionality. The single biggest issue revolves around the navigation of the interface, especially around report card time. Intuitive is not a word I would use to describe our current DMS, therefore we spend a lot of time walking teachers through the labyrinth that is MyEdBC.  With that said however, the current system takes up far less of our time than the previous system, the much maligned BCESIS.

Phone Setup average – 2.7% 

High: 2018/19 – 8.9%

Low: 2016/17 – 1.8%

I could have just merged this item into the Tech Support category, but this area of support seems to have a special place in teachers’ expectations. Teachers want their phones to work seamlessly with the school WiFi and email system and god help you if it doesn’t.

Curriculum Support average – 26.1%

High: 2017/18 – 34%

Low: 2018/19 – 19.8%

Last but not least is the Curriculum Support area of support. This area of support revolves around helping teachers re envisioning how they can not only teach using technology, but how students can demonstrate learning using technology. When the position of Digital Integration Specialist was created, it felt that this would be the area most of our time would be spent. Helping teachers with digitizing their teaching has always been the goal, but it hasn’t really turned out that way. I have a couple thoughts as to why this has happened, but that is for another blog post.

Many quick conclusions could be made by looking at these numbers, but what I see is this. The simplicity of the overhead projector is no longer the reality of Educational Technology today. A teacher’s instructional environment is far more complex than ever before and to expect our teachers to be experts with using all this technology is just silly.

We want our teachers to be content experts. We want them to build good relationships with students and be able to accurately assess their learning. We want teaching to be about the teacher student relationship and not the technology they use. As technology becomes more intuitive, perhaps my role will diminish or perhaps it will just evolve, but I am guessing at some point even I will become too old and addle-brained to keep up and a AI will eventually take my place.

Sep 29

Is it my imagination or… Educational Technology

Posted on Thursday, September 29, 2016 in EdTech

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.

 

Apr 8

EDCI 569 – Major Project Summary

Posted on Wednesday, April 8, 2015 in #tiegrad

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.

Mar 29

EDCI 569 Summary

Posted on Sunday, March 29, 2015 in #tiegrad

Mar 22

Why are we teaching coding?

Posted on Sunday, March 22, 2015 in #tiegrad, 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.

Mar 18

The Evolution of a Literature Review

Posted on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 in #tiegrad

Lit Reviews, no one told me about these things before I started on this little journey. People only told me about the Thesis or the Project, but never the Lit Review. I think there must be some sort of ritualistic secret pledge you must make, along the lines of the Free Masons or Illuminati, before you get your degree.  “Thou shall not speak of the Literature Review to any of the unwashed and unlearned masses!”

I am actually starting to enjoy the silly thing, but it is taking on a life of its own. I just wish I had more time to read and write. I am starting to understand why some people take a year or two off to do their masters.

What I am starting to like most about the whole process, is how the Literature Review is evolving. It took me a great deal of time, energy and thought to get started but things are moving along quite nicely now. The only concern now is that I honestly think it could go on forever. There is just so much out there to read and write about.

To start, the greatest struggle was creating a research question to work with. Then the reading began and that was a bit like sludging though waist deep snow to start but as you read you see new avenues to follow and key words to search. The path to the answer you are looking for, becomes a dendritic maze of possibilities.

As the journal articles stack up and your head becomes cloudy with more information you can possibly summarize, the answers to your research question begin to stack up. Then you begin to realize that you might want to rethink your research question. Is it adequate? did I ask the right question? Are there new questions I should be asking? Did I find answers to questions I should be asking? Fortunately I haven’t had to go back the drawing board, but I have had to tweak my research question.

To start I was doing this work flying by the seat of my pants, but as I continue I am finding myself leaning on the guidance of our text-book Educational Research – Planning, Conducting, and Evaluating Quantitative and Qualitative Research by John W. Creswell. In the beginning I was dreading having to wade through this 600 page behemoth, but it has become very handy in trying to figure out what it is I should be doing.

Moving ahead I will need to start enlisting more help from my faculty advisor and all the other people available to help me. It has become abundantly clear that am not a 21 Century Learner and I am not much of a collaborator. I enjoy discussing things with the people in my cohort, but when it comes down to putting word to blog, I like working on my own. I have a feeling that this wont work for too much longer as I enter my last two terms of this degree.