Monday, November 15, 2010

Teaching at the speed of innovation

All disciplines of teaching have their challenges. A computer teacher's lot is no more difficult than others and without state testing, arguably easier in some respects. However, we all have challenges and one that I believe all computer teachers face is keeping our skill set current and teaching relevant content that will be useful for our students now and for years to come.
Part of this is obviously teaching students how to think and learn for themselves (higher order cognitive skills, lifelong learning, and now, 21st Century Skills). There are plenty of good and not so good books written on this. I would like to spend a little time focusing on the challenge of how to keep your content apace of technological innovation.

If you think about it, a computer teacher must quickly and continuously go through the following cycle:
  1. Learn of a new technology
  2. Educate themselves about the potential that technology offers
  3. Evaluate its appropriateness for their classroom
  4. Determine how to incorporate it into their curriculum

Computer teachers must also be doing this while doing all the things teachers everywhere do, namely teach, assess and plan.  Id bet most of us are also helping maintain our labs and other computers (and users!) in our schools. 

How do you offer your students the best of the present and the future?  I think the answer lies in high pay-off activities inside the classroom.  Finding ways to explore new technology with students allows you to demonstrate how YOU learn and helps teach them critical thinking and how to transfer skills.  At the same time, you can be checking out content you would like to add to the curriculum.  What could be a better lesson? 

I have been experimenting with this and have found it to be pretty fun for both me and students.  Here are a few things Ive learned:
  • This needs to be an activity for more advanced students with whom you have a solid relationship. 
  • You can use the setting to evaluate content for that class as well as lower level classes.  Just make sure the students have skills in similar venues, especially girls.  If there is no point of familiarity many get turned off.
  • Small class or group sizes work best.
  • If your evaluation is positive, let the students run with it a while, possibly making a project.  You will be surprised at where they take it with just a little guidance.
Finally, the big "ah ha" I recently had was to ask my students who have done this to take a few days and research a topic we had only briefly touched on and then guide the whole class on a mutual exploration of that application in more detail.  We have come across many things we just have not had time to explore in depth so this was their chance to go deeper.  I told them they didn't need to become experts, just get familliar enough to ask the right questions or suggest a direction.  We have just started this project and all I can say is that it is FUN!

Try it, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, September 3, 2010

First Impressions On Google Docs In A Collaborative Classroom Environment

This week students in my Advanced Computer Technologies class were introduced to Google Docs for the first time and used their new-found skills to collaborate on the creation of the class syllabus.  The first attempt was utter chaos.  Fun, but chaos.  That was kind of deliberate as I just shared the shell of the syllabus and asked them to start working on the classroom expectations.  Not a lot got done but all had fun.  The second attempt went much better in part due to that experience.  We discussed what happened and I suggested that they try repeating the exercise but with one of them designated as the "facilitator".  I also told them that they could not talk and must use the chat window in GDocs. 

The result was really quite fun to observe.  Of course it started out with everyone having fun in the chat window but slowly, they focused on the task at hand (no intervention necessary) and while still having some fun and with the occasional bit of distracting chat room behavior, they came up with a plan and created a draft syllabus in about 30 minutes.  There are 11 students in my class, mostly juniors.

After this exercise we discussed the rough draft and I helped them clean it up into the final version which will in fact be the syllabus for the class and can be viewed via GDocs.  Some of their ideas are pretty cool.  Some of their standards are higher than those of some teachers!  Fun stuff.

I graded them using a simple grade sheet that included written observations of their behavior and contributions, a simple peer assessment, and my assessment.  That doc is also on GDocs but since it contains userIDs and names I won't be sharing that. 

After we were done, we discussed some of the challenges they encountered and alternate strategies to collaboratively create a document including pros and cons of each approach. 

The thing I took away from this exercise is that once again, student's who are comfortable working in collaborative environments will be much more employable than those who are not.  Who knows what the environment will be for each of them but Id say that the trend towards web-based collaboration continues to grow.  There really is no escaping it.  This might sound like stating the obvious but when I extrapolate, I come up against the same question every time:

"What does education need to look like to build these skills in students?"

Not what it is today, that is for sure.  It also points to one of the biggest hindrances to wide adoption of collaborative learning- current paradigms for standardized testing.

Obviously it will rest on each teacher's and administrator's creativity and ingenuity to find ways to incorporate these skills into their curriculum.  If they don't, their students will enter the marked ill prepared for how work gets done.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Teaching "High Payoff" Applications

There are so many applications out there battling for our attention as users (and consumers I guess) that it can be a little confusing to decide what to spend your time using.  Invariably it seems as soon as you get used to something there is a newer, better thing out there and everyone seems to be using it but you.  At least that is how I feel with technology at times.  Even more daunting is figuring out what to teach to students. 

For instance, there are debates on MS Office vs Google Apps.  Another example would be programming languages to teach at the HS level.  On top of that, new technologies are rolled out every year and some demand at least an evaluation if not inclusion in one's curriculum.  This last part can be confounding because when you think about it, since you can't teach it all, how do you choose what to teach?

Some people seem to teach what they are comfortable with resulting in respectable subject depth but not much breadth.  Some are the other way around.  Finding the right balance seems to me to be a significant challenge and there is no curriculum out there to just pony up for and git er done.

One example would be Web 2.0 technologies.  I think most HS computer teachers who have a lick of sense agree these tools need to be taught (at least formally) to students both so they understand how to take full advantage of them but also from a digital citizenship perspective.  However, two questions arise:

1.  How much time should be spent on these tools?
2.  What tools should be taught?

While I have no real answer to #1 (yet) I want to kick around #2.  Obviously one cannot teach all web applications to students.  Nor should we I think.  However, what are the important ones that will give students the skills necessary to utilize other tools they have never seen OR THAT ARE NOT YET INVENTED?  Im always trying to find those "sweet spot" applications (or usually app group) that provide a strong introductory foundation that is transferable and expandable and ideally, can be used to build that foundation in multiple disciplines or tech concepts.  Applications that do this are what I call High Payoff Applications and when I figure one out (and they all have a useful life by the way) they are the ones I try to build curriculum around.

For example, in the case of Web 2.0 I suspect that a variety of collaborative apps should be taught for students to gain a good understanding of the pros and cons of using each type for certain tasks.  That is an easy one I think.  Which ones do you teach then and in which order? 

A more challenging question for me is what non-web apps to cover.  For instance, I believe the concepts of what data is and how it is used in our world are important for students to comprehend.  To this end, databases need to be covered.  This is a dry subject for students, even if you know what you are talking about and not using those incredibly lame book-based lessons that should all be incinerated.  Can these data concepts be taught in another, more initially engaging format for students, that is transferable and expandable?

There are also multimedia skills such as podcasting, videos, and animation.  It can get super time-consuming to do but students really need an intro to this accessible (albeit confoundingly incompatible) set of tech skills.  What app or in this area, specific group of apps is best for providing a foundation skill set that is transferable and expandable?

Most important, what apps cover or reinforce multiple concepts in these or other areas? 

A few of my current favorites follow:

-MS Excel (still the industry standard when it comes to crunching numbers.  IMHO- you are probably doing students a disservice to teach anything else for data analysis)
-MS Access (just a few weeks in order to ensure students understand the concepts of tables and relationships)
-ARCGIS Desktop much more engaging and reinforces how large amounts of data is used in a practical way in the real world.

-Win Moviemaker which sucks but it is free and practically all students have it on their home PCs.  That fact makes all the difference.
-Formatfactory is a free media converter that converts between all common sound and video types.  Varying media types and compatibility in an extremely important aspect of multimedia concepts that MUST be taught if you want to encourage student use of this aspect of technology.
-Audacity is a free sound editor.  Note that to make MP3 files you need to download the LAME extension which it will prompt you to do the first time you attempt to export an MP3.  Some silly lawyers apparently go involved here somehow...
-iPod Access is able to take songs off an iPod that has been formatted for disk use.  An important concept in interacting with the most common MP3 player on the streets.

Both of these examples are somewhat incomplete in a sense.  Im always reminded about the necessity of common forms of communication and in this case, you might really want to think about reinforcing the skills needed to incorporate products from these and other app sets into a commonly used communication medium as a means of effectively reinforcing or communicating a message or key point. 

Like I said at the beginning, figuring out high payoff applications or really application sets is something I really spend a lot of time kicking around.  If you do too, what conclusions have you drawn?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another myth: Us old "imigrants" vs. younger "natives" to the web

OK, at the risk of going on a rant, I want to debunk the idea that teens somehow have this "native" understanding of the internet, computers and technology and us "old" folk are mere immigrants who just somehow don't get it.

One word - Cowpoop!

After teaching high school comp science classes for a hand full of years now I believe the only difference is students, as a whole, are generally more confident in their ability to figure things out and so they dive in, madly clicking away until the right thing happens or they get distracted by something else and go down that other rabbit hole never worrying about actually completing the initial task. However, the second, third ot fourth thing they try works and that success keeps their confidence up even though they once again never completed what they started out to do.

Adults on the other hand set off to do something and if they hit a point they recognize as the limit of their abilities they stop and seek help. If they run into difficulties they might attempt to slog on until they see the task through or give up in frustration.

Where does this leave us? It emphasizes the importance of a structured approach to learning about computers just like any subject at the very least. It also gives adults (parents in particular) more confidence in their own abilities when they realize it.

Additionally, it helps teachers realize what students really need to be successful. Im amazed at the number of high school students who cannot articulate the difference between Save and Save As including examples of when to use each but routinely type up perfectly acceptable papers in a word processing app. Are they "proficient" at using wp apps? Id say no.

Bottom line, while students and adults think and learn differently, neither is inherently better at using computers and adults are poorly mistaken if they thing kids just "get it". It would not work in math and it doesn't work with computers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The myth of the "A" and why it hurts students

In a former life I managed a team of 30 people and after doing so for a few years felt pretty confident in my abilities to successfully accomplish any assigned task with that group.  My idea of success was reaching an end state on a task that met my personal standards of what "right looked like" which was, according to others, a reasonable but high standard.  In other words, I expected, as best as I could envision it, "A" quality work from me and my team.  With that number of folks, some of whom in subordinate leadership positions being quite skilled in their areas of expertise, all working together, we could go great things. 

I happened to be talking about this with a more senior manager in a similar organization one day. He managed 3 teams the size of mine and he made a statement that has stuck with me ever since.

"If you can, as a group, consistently get to the 80% solution ON TIME you are doing better than most and THAT is success." (caps are my own emphasis)

This leads to an interesting correlation with the Pareto Principle which, while I have not proven this in anything more than a subjective and anecdotal way seems to be valid. 

Your highest (20%) performing subordinate units (people or teams) are there because they perform consistently at an 80% level.

If this is even remotely valid, and in 15 years of management I have not been proven incorrect (granted I could be delusional!!!) then it means that "success" in the real world comes from consistently doing "B-" quality work and getting it done ON TIME.

Think about that, as a teacher.

What does it mean when we (teachers, parents, university admission standards, etc) drill into students heads that an "A" is success? 

To me it means we brainwash students into being perfectionists who, as adults fail to understand the concept of "good enough" and kill ourselves over meaningless perfection in the workplace when we should be spending that extra time with family, exercising, etc to become a better, more healthy and balanced person.  We create young adults who don't work well on teams because the lack of getting things "perfect" (as we think it should be) in a collaborative environment drives kids nuts.  I see this play out in my classes project after project. 

Finally, it means that these kids, if they are unfortunate to become managers before getting deprogramed, become horrible managers and frustrate the folks who must work for them.

  • Make students do challenging small group assignments with milestone deliverables which emphasize timeliness and "good enough" as a standard on your rubrics
  • Don't give students the time to get it "perfect"
Deprogram them NOW.