Friday, October 28, 2011

Facetime vs. Facebook in education

I was at first disappointed that my favorite Learning and the Brain conference has as its topic "Educating the Whole Student: Using Brain Science for Smarter, Happier and Healthier Learners." I was hoping for something similar to last year's conference, "iGeneration:  How the Digital Age is Alterting Student Brains, Learning and Technology."  Indeed, it was that last conference that ultimately brought me to the MOOC.  However, the new conference, with its focus on "teaching hearts and minds," "strengthening social-emotional skills," and "encouraging ethics and collaboration" among other topics,  falls neatly into a question others and I  have been pondering: How much does the physical academic environment matter?  Do we need to learn in a "learning space" with physically present teachers and peers? I think in many instances we do.

I come to the MOOC with the perspective of an elementary teacher, which is somewhat different than many of the participants, but I think the social environment may be important at all levels of education.  The one-to-one connections between student and teacher and between student and classmate may well be part of the learning process and I'm not sure how well we can replicate that with e-learning. 

I've run across a few scenarios recently which have emphasized to me the importance of the direct human connection.  In response to a blog post about math homework help, someone recommended a math tutoring website to me.  The first thing I wanted to  know was how the tutoring was conducted.  Could the student and tutor see what the other was doing in real time?  My thought was that on-line tutoring might work for review, for example, taking a quick look at a Mathtrain video might remind a student of a concept, but that the initial teaching must at least be synchronous to keep the learner engaged.  There is research to support this.  In her blog, Joanne Jacobs references a recent study of the Apollo turnaround schools in Houston, Texas.  In that study, it was intensive tutoring with a person, rather than tutoring on a computer that raised math scores.

The importance of the in-person tutoring may have to do with the ability to adapt.  It is time for my principal to observe me teaching.  As part of the process, I need to submit a lesson plan showing how I will introduce the topic, use direct instruction, modeled instruction, guided practice, etc.  I have made the lesson plan, but all the while I recognize that if I stick to the "best laid plan", I may not teach very well.  When I am actually teaching, I need to be able to analyze both verbal and non-verbal clues as my lesson progresses.  I need to assess interest, comprehension, ability to apply the learning, and student involvement.  I need to take advantage of "teachable moments."  It is this application of teaching skills that makes teaching so different when standing in a classroom than it appears in a credentialing class lecture hall, just ask any student teacher.

Moreover, a teacher's impact may occur outside academics. is a website that Vicky Davis mentioned in her blog.  Here different people have posted letters to thank teachers for the impact they made on their lives.  I found it both thought-provoking and invigorating to see how much impact a mentoring teacher can have.   Can an on-line teacher sit through lunch with a student who can't understand math because he's having a bad day at home?  Can an on-line teacher encourage a struggling student when she seems him hanging outside the grocery score with his friends?  I don't think e-learning can replicate that connection. 

In the end, I suspect we will need to maintain a balance between the efficiencies of e-learning and a the adaptability and emotional connection available in a face-to-face "learning environment."  As e-learning evolves, it will be interesting to watch the evolution of our classrooms and other learning spaces.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jing and Mathtrain

Prezi was fun for explaining division, but maybe a little cumbersome for a first foray into having students teach students.  I was looking for another multimedia method, and voila, learned about Jing in my 21st Century Technology Leadership Class.

Jing is a free application that allows you to take simple screenshots of your computer or to make very quick and easy screencasts.  One person who is a master at this is Eric Marcos, who teaches 6th grade at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, California and is a founder of Mathtrain.  We all know that in order to teach math well, you really need to understand it well.  Eric capitalizes on this and has his students explain math concepts for other students, then Eric records them and posts them on his website using Jing.  You can see their story here. These mini-videos are really engaging and you can access them for free here.  There is even a free Mathtrain Ipad app that you can download, available here.

In the interest of jumping in and trying all things ed tech, I tried a similar screencast using Jing and Paintbrush2 on my MacBook.  It was remarkably easy and you can see my very first attempt here.  I anticipate that the students will love doing this in computer lab with our PC Paint program and Jing, and if all goes well, we can have math help available on line, just like Eric Marcos

Thursday, October 20, 2011

CS Unplugged


I am old enough that my introduction to computers was a Fortran class in college that actually gave me nightmares that would wake me up in a cold sweat.    So, it’s a surprise to find myself becoming an advocate for introducing computer science in elementary school.  However, if more students were introduced to the field through a program like CS Unplugged developed by Tim Bell in New Zealand, we would have fewer worries about being able to compete in the computer science field in the 21st Century.
I was lucky enough to meet Tim today and to attend an assembly he did for Pacific Grove’s 5th graders.  His introduction looked like magic.  He had a student make a random 5 by 5 grid of stickers that were either black or white.  He added some extra stickers that he was holding to the grid, then asked the student to switch one sticker from black to white or vice versa while he had his back turned.  The student switched a random sticker, then Tim looked at the board, picked the sticker that had been switched, and flipped it back over.  Apparent magic.
Of course, Tim went on to explain how he had intentionally placed his extra stickers  as markers so that he could find an error and correct it in a way similar to the way a computer detects missing or damaged bits.  The student volunteer was then able to demonstrate the trick herself.  The kids were on the edge of their seats as Tim continued to engage them in an introduction to computer science.  Tim went on to demonstrate concepts of binary numbers, image representation, sorting algorithms and more.  He made computer science come alive for these elementary students.   They were having much more fun than I did in that long-ago Fortran class and most likely won't suffer through any nightmares caused by the assembly.
The great news for educators is that these mini-lessons that Tim taught and many more are available for free on the CSUnplugged website.  They require no special materials or technology, but can be taught using things found in most classrooms.  No computers are required (thus the  "unplugged"  part of the project).  Topics covered include:

  • Data: Representing Information
  • Putting Computers to Work: Algorithms
  • Telling Computers What to Do: Procedures
  • Really Hard Problems: Intractability
  • Sharing Secrets: Cryptology
  • The Human Face of Computing: Interacting with Computers
These lessons could be taught with an eye towards learning about computers or they can supplement the classroom curriculum.  I plan to start using some of the activities during math time, or for early finishers.

Prezis for homework help

I'm looking for engaging ways for students to get math homework help.  Our students are able to access their math textbook on-line, but it's not all that easy.  Students need to remember a password and know where to look for information once they get on-line.   The result is that so far, no one has been tempted to try the on-line book.

I want to find something that our students will use, so I've tried a Prezi explaining division.  My plan is to introduce Prezis with my Prezi about my dog (5th graders love pets and finding out more about their teachers' "real" lives).  Then, I will show the students the Prezi about division and how to access it.  To make it even more memorable, the students will have the chance to make their own Prezis in computer lab.  There are so many possibilities:  a sequencing exercise, something they create about themselves, an explanation of another math concept . . .

Maybe I'll also give extra credit to anyone who actually goes to the Prezi and can answer some questions about it.  I really want the struggling students to learn ways to get help.  This is a skill that will help them their whole lives, and isn't that what it's really all about?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Students without shoulder strain -- digital textbooks

Would you be willing to go to a school without textbooks?
One idea discussed yesterday by David Wiley in the Change2011 MOOC (#Change11) was the idea of open-source textbooks that would be free, digital and up-to-date, a trend that appears to be rising in these digital times, with one example being Flat World Knowledge, publishers.  I wondered if there was any move in California to use digital textbooks in our classrooms.
It turns out that California has an initiative to rid our classrooms of those heavy, outdated textbooks.    Back in May 2009, Arnold Schwarzeneggar announced an initiative to go digital for some high school math and science textbooks, primarily as a money-saving device.  The governor’s plan was to have the new textbooks ready for deployment by fall of 2009.    I have noticed that our high school students are still lugging around 10 pound textbooks, so assumed that the initiative was dead, but it is not dead, just progressing slowly, for a myriad of reasons having the do with both the technology needed to access the books and the politics of textbooks themselves.
However, there is a group, the California Learning Resource Network, that reviews textbooks for alignment with the California standards and the books that they have been reviewed can be found on their website.  The textbooks on the list include more than math and science texts.  Even more exciting, nearly two years after the announcement of the initiative, the first schools are launching their programs under the initiative and so far, there is a lot of excitement about the digital textbooks.

Watching the video, I can imagine the students’ excitement for interactive text, the teachers’ excitement for increased student engagement and up-to-date information and the districts’ excitement for textbook money saved.  I can also envision the disappointment of technological snafus, the lack of adequate teacher support and hosts of unanticipated costs and push-back.  
My vision for education in the future surely includes learning that is not restricted by cumbersome textbooks adopted on a 6-year cycle.   My vision surely includes using technology in the classroom to access current information and high-quality text.  I’m willing to suffer through the growing pains to be in the forefront. 
Where do we sign up to be in the next group of schools to adopt digital textbooks?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Prezi ups and downs

One of my goals while I am working part-time is to use the times when I am "off" to learn how to incorporate more technology in the classroom.  Powerpoint presentations are getting an awfully bad rap from students and business people who have yawned through long and boring presentations, so new ways of making presentations abound: Prezi is one of these.  I have looked at a couple of Prezis recently and  they were engaging; the software allows for a presentation on a backdrop something like a whiteboard or bulletin board.  The presentation follows a path around the board that zooms in on different information on the board.  The software is cloud-based, which is important if we are going to use it at school, so I decided to see how much of a presentation I could put together in a hour.

I went to the Prezi website and was pleased to see that Prezi has an enhanced free option for educators.  I joined, logged in and started making my presentation.  Prezi is very easy to use, at least for a simple first pass.  I haven't learned yet how to frame my photos so the captions can be seen at the same time as the photo, and somehow I missed the caption for the first photo.  However, the fact that I was able to complete a presentation in an hour encourages me to do more.  I anticipate making a Prezi about the steps to division next and I can imagine several projects that students could do using Prezis.

Anyway, I would like to introduce Garmin, the big red dog who inspires me starring in My First Prezi.

Digital Scholarship -- don't wait, just leap in

Something I hadn’t considered before was the conservatism of the academic environment at the highest levels and how this might affect the reluctance to adapt new technologies in our elementary schools.  Over the weekend, I listened to my husband and his father talk about getting tenure at their respective institutions.   More so than I realized, for these very capable men hoping for tenure 5 decades apart, the tenure requirements have stayed very much the same.   There was some feel to the discussion of gratitude surely when tenure is acquired, but also of surviving the hazing of one’s peers and not wanting anyone in the future to get by with less.
When I got home, I discovered that the Change11 MOOC (#change11) speaker two weeks ago was Martin Weller, talking about digital scholarship.  His talk was focused on digital scholarship in universities and how there is a tension between traditional academics and new digital technologies.
The focus of his talk was on research, but his analysis can apply to any part of the academic process.  Weller shared his frustration with the conservative bent of researchers who are as a general rule, reluctant to accept blogging, social networking, open publication.  One interesting point, since both my husband and my father-in-law are scientists, was that for scientists blogging is almost antithetical to the way they usually publish their work.  Generally, scientists test and retest, changing one variable at a time, so to blog about the incomplete process is counter to “the way things are done.”
Just as I get frustrated at the elementary level because elementary educators require our students to leave all their technology at the door, academics at the university level are somewhat the converse of other industries where innovation is encouraged.  Elementary school has become about control and teachers fear they cannot control the student’s technology.  Similarly, research at our academic institutions is about control, and innovation is viewed warily as rife with surprises.
My take away from this is that we cannot wait for things to change “from above.”  This process is likely to take far longer than any of us is willing to wait (just look at how long we have been saddled with No Child Left Behind).  We must leap in and make our own classrooms child and technology friendly.  There will likely be some mistakes and surprises, but we will have plenty of support from the blogging, social networking, connected teachers who know that jumping in and sometimes failing is what learning is all about.  Most of all, teaching and learning will be fun.