Between a Grok and a Hard Place – Coding in the Classroom

pylogoAfter 8 months of searching… I think I have found my Coding in the Classroom solution. What I was looking for was a product that gave me a means of some semblance of classroom control but gave the students the flexibility of an open learning environment. I also needed a product that gave me the confidence in saying “this is the one” to students, parents and administration.

What I have come to after months of searching is a Learn to Code solution called Grok Learning out of Australia. They have developed an all in one learn to code platform using Python as their first  offering and from what I have played with thus far, it looks to be a tight little package.

Being a coding neophyte myself, I needed something I could learn quickly along side my students but at the same time had enough complexity and sophistication to challenge the aspiring Wozniaks in the room. From what I have read, Python is apparently the way to go. It is easy to learn, teaches good coding practices and is similar enough to the C languages that learning C & C++ is easier once Python is in the bag. Besides, if Python is good enough for Google and NASA, I am guessing it is probably good enough for a high school classroom.

Some of the things I like about Grok are the following:

  • Browser based
  • Created by educators
  • No installations needed
  • Affordable(ish) $30 a head
  • Easy to set up online classroom
  • Student tracking and marking ready
  • Discussion forums to hash out coding challenges
  • Competitions to challenge students
  • Growing selection of tutorials
  • Downloadable resources
  • Custom courses available
  • Parenting Dashboard
  • Worked on my iPad
  • Live help

When speaking to the good folks of Grok, I mentioned that Canadian educators need an online classroom environment that doesn’t require ANY student information in order to comply with our privacy laws and they seemed to be willing to make that happen. As it stands, a teacher could still set up aliases for each kid and still be within the law.

The question you may now be asking is how Grok Learn To Code is different or better than the products already available? and to be honest, I am not completely sure. I have only just begun to play but at this point what I do like is the following.

Bang for buck – I originally looked at Code School. They provide a wide selection of courses, a really good delivery system and “team” discounts. Unfortunately, the cost is just way to much to ask kids or the school to pay. Sure if I was a good teacher, I would shell out the cash for it myself but I am a selfish sort and prefer to feed my kids so I passed

There are some Great Free Resources out there as well such as Code Academy, which my class is using now. They provide a very similar product to Grok including Python but it doesn’t give the teacher the opportunity to create an online classroom or delve into Python quite as deeply as Grok. In my opinion the ability to manage students under a single back-end interface is invaluable but being able to challenge the higher end kids is imperative. Grok also provides a unique level of support and opportunity for kids to interact with other young coders from around the world.

So after 6 short months and a long intensive search, I think I have come to a decision. it has been really quite astonishing how many learn to code options have come out of the woodwork while I have been looking. All offer a decent learn to code experience but at this moment… I think I will give Grok Learning a go for my coding program.

If anyone would like to give Grok a FREE trial run, they have given me 5 teacher subscriptions to give away. The first 5 insightful comments on this post will receive a link to join Grok.

Cheers,

Keith

 

Open Education – Part 4: Learning fast & loose in the classroom

I picked up a new class this year. Actually I was cajoled into taking a ICT class in exchange for one of my Planning 10’s. “Come on Keith your will be great! Besides you love techy stuff don’t yah?” Although I couldn’t argue the point, it was still a new course and I didn’t really know what was involved.

As any wily teaching veteran would do, I held off on committing to take the class until I checked out the IRP. (Integrated Resource Package) Once I had ferreted out a dusty old copy from the depths of the Tech office, I was perturbed to find that it was a 2003 version so I did what I should have done in the first place and went to the net and looked for something that had been written post Windows XP. As you have probably already guessed, the most recent version IS the 2003 version. In tech years, 2003 was a millennia ago. Essentially were still pounding out school work on stone tablets back then.

Taking a quick look through I wasn’t very inspired.

  • Microsoft Office (my grandmother uses Microsoft Office)
  • Web publishing tools (Could you be a bit more specific?)
  • Video editing (I thought that was film and TV)

However, I did see some mention of programming, some image editing and a few other snippets that lent me hope. I knew if I stuck with all the Prescribed learning outcomes, it would be a PAINFUL year for everyone involved, so I went down to talk to the all mighty and powerful people and said… “Sure, I will take ICT IF I don’t have to follow that IRP to the letter!” To which they said… “Giddy up!” 

Now you may be wondering what qualifications do I have to be teaching ICT and my answer is… None! Sure I am a tech geek but I haven’t taken any formal training in anything. Actually that is not true. I did take 4 weeks of first year computer science before I dropped it but that was in 1990 and in tech years, we were still killing wooly mammoths with our bare hands back then.

What I am familiar with is how to build websites for personal and retail purposes, how to optimize websites to be search engine friendly and I have a great deal of experience using and hacking the appearance of WordPress Sites. I also have been using Adobe Photoshop, Dream Weaver & Fireworks for a number of years as well. How this makes me worthy of being an ICT teacher, well that may be up for debate but it gave me enough of a leg up to say “YES! I will teach ICT” 

Although I felt confident to take on the class, I realized that the kids I would be getting were going to be light years ahead of me in many respects, in one area especially. Coding!

Regardless of my inadequacies in this area, I still wanted to make coding a major part of the course because coding is all the rage these days and all the cool geeks are doing it. This is where Open Learning comes in.

The only way I could provide kids with any sort of learning experience around coding was to utilize the wealth of Open Learning resources available on how to code. I realized from the get go that there was no way I could learn this stuff and turn around a try to teach it day in day out, so I resolved to just set them loose.

For me this was unnerving. This would be the first time in 17 years where I have not been dishing out the information the kids needed to know and god help me if things went sideways.

Now, three months into the year, my role has become more of a director of resources. If a kid needs help and I can’t answer the questions, I find another kid who can. I find and present to the kids learning resources and opportunities which they can utilize to enhance their own self-directed learning. At times it feels like we are moving a little fast and loose but the kids always seem to be on task, get things done and enjoy what they are doing. I have yet to have any eye rolling or groaning, I never have any absentees, they are all in class on time… It is a remarkably efficient classroom. Having said that, I am sure things will now go to hell in a hand basket.

What I do find myself doing as a “teacher” is trying to get the kids to think about what it is they are doing. What are the ramifications of the app you want to develop, the image you have created or the digital footprint you have made? So many of these kids view what they are doing with or on a computer as isolated events. Rarely do they think about the social ramifications of their digital creations or actions. To combat this blinder effect, I will take a class every couple of weeks and look at the social consequences of what we create using technology.

This little experiment has made me realize that I may no longer have control of the content but I do have control of the context. The traditional sage on the stage approach gives the teacher the power / responsibility to deliver content and context all at once but with open learning, context can be glossed over by the learner or is missing entirely from the content. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the teacher to frame the individual learning within the appropriate context.

These past three months have reinforced with me that Open Education in the absence of a living breathing teacher will be doomed to failure or at least can’t be considered “education” because without the teacher it is just information. As I come to the end of this post and this course, I leave you with an article that appeared in the Washington Post by Larry Cuban, that makes this point very well: The technology mistake: Confusing access to information with becoming educated

 

Cheers,

Keith Rispin

 

Inquiry Based Learning – Are we just slapping a rubric on life?

iStock_000026852527XSmallThis weeks topic for my #tiegrad class was inquiry based learning and how technology can facilitate it. I have to admit, I have not been caught up in this new fangled method of teaching yet. Perhaps it is just because I am just too long in the tooth or that back in the day, inquiry learning was known as being a kid.

As a result, I was not sure what I was going to write this week but as luck would have it, a colleague and I ended up having a bit of a chat on the subject and lo and behold! My blog post was born. He is much like me, a miserable curmudgeon who looks at education from more of an Eeyoresque point of view and quite frankly, neither he or I quite get this whole inquiry learning movement. 

We talked about the good old days when “inquiry learning” was a simple endeavour. Give something a go, fail, then try something else. There was always the alternate scenario as well. Give something a go, have a brush with failure’s evil twin success and get a pat on the back from your adoring fan. Either way, it was rarely planned. It just happened, no adults needed.

My concern here is why are we trying to apply rubrics and quantify that which was once called life? As well-intentioned as the inquiry learning model may be, why do we have to formalize learning that was once just part of growing up?

When I was a kid I learned all sorts of good things without an adult looking over my shoulder

Meteorology:  When your hair stands on end while standing in the middle of a baseball field as thunderheads are rolling in from the South, lightning is about to strike.

Physics & Firearm Safety: Don’t shoot a pellet gun at a power line insulator in -40 degree celsius weather.

Environmental Sciences: Don’t  play with matches, in the middle of a grass field during dry season.

Mechanics and family dynamics: If you crash your new moped into the side of a car, don’t try to hide it from your dad and fix it yourself.

Physics & Gravity: Jumping off your roof with hefty bag parachutes does not work.

Anatomy & Emergency Medicine: You break multiple bones when jumping off your roof with hefty bag parachutes.

I shudder to think of what we might have come up with if we had the internet at our disposal but even without the internet, the things we accomplished were monumental. All we had at our disposal was our imaginations our bikes, some sporting equipment and a couple of dogs. I guess what I am trying to get at here is that we didn’t need someone to set up learning opportunities, instead we discovered all on our own. It was just part of our daily lives but now, it seems that life has to be a curricular objective.

After our maudlin bit of meandering down memory lane, I did a Google search for: “what is inquiry based learning” and I found a site where I found this one line.

Inquiry based learning is mainly involving the learner and leading him to understand.  Teachnology, Inc.

I really don’t mean to be a buzz kill here but after reading that, I have two burning questions.

  • Is it true inquiry if students are being led to understanding?
  • Are we now trying to create curriculum to replace life experience?

Perhaps this is just the brave new world but I am sad for our children if we have come to a point in our society where everything in their lives has to come from a lesson plan.

JMHO.

Cheers!

Further Reading

Free Range Kids

Parenting Old School

Your Ed Tech Brand – Teacher as an influencer.

1380965427_teacherIt would seem a new blogging schedule is starting to emerge. This going to school thing is forcing me to sit down with a glass of Shiraz in hand and hammer out a new blog post every Friday night. Not that I am complaining… I love Shiraz and I love Blogging, so here goes.

This weeks instalment is all about online identities and how it plays out as a connected educator. Bonnie Stewart dropped in as our guest moderator for this weeks #tiegrad class and shared some of her thoughts on what I found to be a riveting topic.

You can find out more about Bonnie and her Dissertation here: Scholars In The Open: Networked Identities Vs Institutional Identities

The discussion generated some very interesting questions about the ramifications of being a networked educator. For better or worse, teachers now have access to extraordinarily powerful tools with which to share their ideas and opinions about education. As a result, classroom teachers are  changing the landscape of education in a way we have never seen before.

It was a discussion that went far beyond the usual spiel of  “thou shalt not post pictures of your drunken escapades in Aruba last Christmas”  It was a discussion about the consequences of letting a schmuck teacher such as myself, influence others in a way that was virtually impossible just a few short years ago.

This discussion was so interesting because it was about ME! I am living proof of the power of being a connected educator. Two(ish) years ago, I was just some guy who worked with at-risk kids. My influence hardly went beyond the confines of the staff room and even then my influence was negligible. The only reason my existence mattered was that I took up space around the lunch table. Then along came a my blog and a twitter account and whether it be warranted or not, all of a sudden I had influence that reached far beyond the small confines of our staff room.

Although I kinda realized it before, yesterday’s class got me thinking about my responsibility as a connected educator.

The questions we looked at revolved around the ramifications of being a connected teacher. What are my responsibilities and who should I answer to? We also got into how networked teachers are disrupting the traditional power structures in education and what the consequences could be?

These are the questions that frame what Stewart referred to as “Identities for a new ethos”. If I remember correctly, she also said it is a world for which societal norms have not yet been formed and as such we can sometimes get situations that look a wee bit like the Wild West where there is no Marshall in town to keep the gun slinging at bay…  I paraphrase

Here are the significant questions I went away with. Anyone who has been following me for any length of time, will be able to figure out my answer to each so I would LOVE for you to chime in with your own answers to these questions. If you have a second please leave a comment and share your opinions/answers.

Questions to ponder for the connected teacher

What is the teachers place in the this new interconnected world?

How vocal should a teacher be on a social network?

Should connected teachers be expected to parrot their their school district’s party line?

Where is the line, how edgy or outspoken can a teacher be without being open to discipline?

Should your online identity stray from the person you are in the classroom?

Does a strong online presence threaten existing educational power structures and is that ok?

Cheers,
Keith

Education reformers don’t know what they are talking about

schoolreformThis mid summer blogpost comes to you courtesy of a tweet I sent a few weeks back. It got a retweet or two and I had a wee bit of a discussion about what it all meant with my twitter friend @HGG, which eventually brought up an obvious question. If parenting is more important to a child’s academic achievement than school, why doesn’t the education reform movement focus their vitriol on the living room rather than the classroom?

Ultimately, I think we all know why reformers don’t point fingers at parents, it’s just bad politics and teachers are ripe for the whipping. The other problem is that there is a laundry list of things beyond the classroom that can derail a child’s academic progress, something I call “Academic Disruptors”. Some of these disruptors are related to parenting but much of it is simply a reflection of the twisted society we live in. The unpopular reality is that failure to thrive in school, is a MUCH larger issue than just a lack of rigorous academic standards or teacher accountability measures but reformers don’t want to hear that, they just want someone to blame other than taking a look at a socioeconomic system that has come to ruin.

Screen Shot 2013-07-05 at 8.33.36 AM

Out of curiosity I asked a few people (teachers and civilians) to give me three things they feel get in the way of a child’s success in school. Obviously the teachers looked beyond the classroom but curiously, I did not get a single response from a non teacher who pointed to the classroom. The list of “academic disrupters” I compiled are essentially all forces beyond the hallowed halls of your local school.

The list has some fairly obvious items but there are some not so obvious ones in there too. Many are interrelated but I mention them separately because they can stand on their own as an academic disruptor. What follows are the items from that list, juxtaposed with the two pillars of education reform as we see it being sold by reformers.

  1. Tougher academic standards
  2. Greater teacher accountability

As you read through, you may ask yourself “Yes well… how many of kids does this list really represent?”

My response is that any single item may not represent all that many kids but collectively, I would say that it represents a significant percentage of any school population. The other thing to remember is that this list is far from complete and could potentially be endless.

I hope as you read through, it becomes clear just how ludicrous the education reform movement in North America has become. The simplistic bifocal solution of tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability cannot fix the education system, simply because it does not address the real academic disruptors in our schools.

Poverty – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will immediately address the daily effects of poverty on a child’s ability to be academically successful.

Hunger – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will provide a child the daily nourishment they need to be ready to actively engaged with the curriculum.

Divorce – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will mitigate the emotional turmoil that can be created by divorce and ensure that students experience academic success.

Mental Health – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will negate any mental health issue that could impede a child’s cognition or ability to build positive relationships with their peers, allowing them to be academically successful.

Addiction – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will address the root causes of addiction and substance abuse in our society and pave the way for academic success for our children.

Fitness & Health – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will address the epidemic of poor health and fitness issues faced by North American society and empower children to become more academically successful.

Body Image Disorders – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will protect our adolescents from the biological, psychological and environmental factors that are believed to cause body dysmorphic disorders and allow all children to be academically successful.

Digital Distraction – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will keep children from spending inordinate amounts of time outside of school on passive non academic activities such as gaming, surfing the web and playing on their smart phone.

Nutrition – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will prevent children from starting their day with a bag of chips and a can of coke. This will ensure that all children eat nutritious meals before during and after school, enabling them to be ready for their academic day.

Enabling – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will stop parents from enabling their children to engage in behaviours that negatively affect their academic performance and ensure academic success.

Pregnancy – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability, will prevent teens from having sex and conceiving children, allowing children to stay in school and be academically successful.

Employment – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will ensure that academically successful students will be gainfully employed once they have completed school.

Death – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will shelter children from the detrimental emotional effects of death in the family or amongst their friends, allowing them to be academically successful.

Developmental disabilities – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will ensure that children with developmental disabilities will no longer need psycho educational assessments or classroom assistance and they will still be academically successful.

Bullying – Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will eliminate all bullying regardless of where or when it takes place, allowing for all children to feel included in the school community and become academically successful.

Relationships - Tougher academic standards and greater teacher accountability will ensure that students do not get themselves involved in distracting or harmful relationships with their peers, allowing them to be academically successful.

Now if anyone tries to tell you schools can be fixed within the walls of a classroom, you can call BS with confidence that it can’t.

If you come up with anything else, feel free to add to the list. I would love to hear more.

**NOTE** This post is intended to be a critique of the school reform movement in the USA, not a critique of the Canadian education reform movement. It can however, be seen as a “Don’t go there” warning to Canadian education reformers.

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