Sunday, December 23, 2012

Surface RT - not making the grade

I got the chance to sit down with a Surface RT for about 30 minutes at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue Square. Below is what I came up with.

Typing on the Surface RT:

Normally I can type about one hundred and fourty words er minute . this keboardwlldefinally tke sgignificant getting ued to. It doesn’t seej totally respondent immediately to my typing but aftr time we cn see tht I end up mak8ng some significant improvements. It is in the slow typing and light taps tht I tend to miss. Specilly things with my little fingers. I’m not entirely that adpting to the new keyboard is something we neceeearily want to train all of our student so to. Though the machine ca still plug intoa USB keyboard. I can probably get much better at using it after significant time working with it. The cover seems strong and durable. It works well as both a cober and keyboard. I do have question about its durability moving into and out of a backpack all the time. Again, this is me starting off with the $600 surface. It doesn’t have full versions of nything. But it coms with word, excel, powerpoint, and one note. It doeswork well and shold connct appropriately to ou system. I’m not sure if onsitestorage would be a fesable option or not. All in all it seems responsive and like a machine that would definitely work.

additionally some of the basic windows commads don't work. The web browser doesn't paste using control-V. differences like this are a major drawback to a ststem like this.

Post experience review composed on a laptop:

  Overall I'm not really that impressed with the Surface RT. It's too similar to a desktop but lacking several of the primary features that I've become use to. Unlike the iPad which is very clearly a separate device, the Surface RT mimics much of what Windows 8 is capable of without being a true windows machine. It fails to operate as a laptop but in offering the limited down version of Windows it becomes too complex for a tablet. It doesn't have the ease of use of apps that are solely designed for a tablet. It doesn't operate intuitively as I feel tablets should.

  When it comes to picking a student device for our school I really feel the Surface RT doesn't make the grade. It has too many options which will end up being confusing for many students. It doesn't really teach people to use Windows to the level that I would consider an individual proficient in OS usage. Unfortunately students would be better with either a real laptop, which could be obtained for the same market price as a new Surface, or an iPad 2, which is available for a couple hundred dollars less.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The future of Tablets: iPad vs Surface

iPad 3
  At my school we've been having a series of discussions about tablets. There's a number of teachers that have already adopted iPads and bring them to meetings instead of their laptop. In truth, it seems like a laptop isn't really a laptop any more. It's simply a desktop that is portable. Generally speaking the need for desktops has essentially vanished. The cost of a laptop and the speed at which it becomes antiquated means that the lack of ability to upgrade such a device is irrelevant. It's easier just to replace it anyway. Fully functional laptops can be found for around $500 to serve most major purposes.
iPad 2
  What really brought on the immediate discussion point was our Superintendent who we felt needs a tablet. It would really meet the majority of his needs. With the recent invent of the Microsoft Surface he thought that it may be worth someone investigating this as a potential answer to the future need for student tablets. I persuaded him that if he was going to get a device to meet his purposes he should pickup an iPad and we should pickup a Surface to test separately if we think this may be the direction to go in. This lead into a discussion of me getting a tablet, and it made the most sense that if someone was going to be testing the viability of tablets, it should probably be me.
  I'll admit that I was a little disappointed that this meant that I'd be diving into a Microsoft product instead of an Apple product. Generally speaking the price point of Apple products have been the major deterrent for me engaging with them on a personal level. MacBooks tend to run around $1000 while fully functional PCs laptops are half that. However, when it comes to tablets, a refurbished iPad 2 runs $319, new at $399. The iPad 3 and the Surface run approximately the same price somewhere around the $700 range. When it comes to having a simple device that works well, that has always been Apple's strong point. It is when trying to get powerful performance and flexibility that Apples have lacked.

Surface RT

  So I started to look into the Surface. The current Surface RT proved quite an interesting device. It contains a pared down version of Windows 8 and comes default with a the basic version of Office which includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. This deals with one of the biggest struggles of mobile devices, having the common programs that people are used to using. The iPad charges $10 each for their equivalent versions iWorks programs Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Not that the $30 couldn't just be rolled into the machine, but the idea that to get true functionality out of the device I need to buy a couple of basic programs that Microsoft is giving me for free is just somewhat annoying.
Surface RT
  The most interesting thing about the Surface was how much it was working towards looking like a PC that was also a tablet, rather than being a totally separate device. This appears as progress as our discussions drift to the eventuality of a single device (think smart phone) that can operate as an entire computer. All you need to do is plug it into a monitor, keyboard, and projector. While the Surface RT doesn't totally realize that dream it is a step forward. However, what Microsoft has for the future definitely gets closer.

Surface Pro

  In January Microsoft is releasing the Surface Pro which, unlike the name suggests, isn't really just an upgraded version of the Surface RT. The Pro will come with a full version of Windows 8. That doesn't sound very impressive until you start to delve into it a bit. A full version of Windows 8 makes this less of a tablet and more of a full laptop as far as functionality goes. It doesn't have a mobile processor, it's got a full Intel chip. Perhaps the most important feature of the whole show is also the simplest. It's got a USB port.
  The combination of a 3.0 USB port and a full version of Windows 8 is what really makes this device shine for me. A single USB port is enough to plug into a Targus Docking Station. This means a Surface Pro is the tablet when I'm traveling, and a computer when I'm at my desk. The idea of this is very intreaguing. It reminds me of a home inspector that I hired at one point that had a laptop with a screen he could flip around into a touch style device. His was a 5 lb laptop; this is a 2 lb tablet. The touch laptops of old never really did it for anyone because they weren't ergonomically designed tablets. The ability to easily plug into a station through a USB plug means for teachers they could move from their desk with the device quickly and easily. They've still got a functioning tablet for meetings and roaming, and it's a single plug to reconnect to the projector and keyboard. This might work.
  There is a few odd things with the Surface Pro. First off, while the RT comes with the limited version of office similar to Office Home or Student versions, the Pro doesn't ship with office installed. This isn't a big deal for me personally because my district has licensees, but it is odd. Second you're looking at a 64gb internal solid state drive. I like solid state, but 64gb concerns me for a laptop. By the time windows, office, and a few other basic software things are installed it doesn't have much room for media. Also the $899 doesn't come with the keyboard which I think will be a vital piece of the puzzle as it works as both a screen cover and keyboard. That means you're really looking at $1K to get started. Plus you'd need a dock, and another keyboard and monitor and -- crap. That's a lot of money.

Teaching Stations

  When I start looking at the whole package of what it'd take to set up a teaching station for each teacher with a Surface Pro the price gets out of hand really quick. I just ordered 2 Lenovo laptops (L430s) with docking station and carrying case for $710 each. That gives me enough extra coin compared to the $1200 (with dock) of the pro to pickup an iPad 2 (Refurbished for $319 from and a couple of accessories. Because the L430 is a real laptop I don't need a separate keyboard. and monitor and such, though I'd probably use them anyway. It's got a full 320gb storage, dvd drive, and all the necessary hookups already on it. It's a tough sell to get it all in one for more than I'm paying for it separate.
  While the idea of an all in one I'm not sure if the price tag is worth it, yet. I feel that eventually we'll be looking at tablets replacing laptops and using a good dock as a working station. Laptops have already basically replaced desktops in most light business applications, and if they haven't it is simply because people haven't bought one in the past three or four years. I'm curious to see how Apple responds to this. For the first time we see Microsoft taking a step ahead and making the OS on a new device better than the competitions. Apple needs to respond with a full iOS version of an iPad.

The Future

  What I'm hoping to see in the future is the combination of all of these things into a cell phone that you can plug into your tablet, or into your computing docking station. Solid state drives are becoming more powerful and will eventually replace moving parts drives altogether. Eventually we'll just be carrying around the very core of what we need with us and just need to plug it into the format we want to work.
  As it is I'm very curious to get my hands on a Surface Pro to see if it really lives up to expectations. While it might not be the answer today, it is a first generation machine. In two years, we should expect to see major changes in the tablet arena. The iPad 2 is still a fully viable tablet at under $400 and it is only a year and a half old. The Surface Pro might find some similar drift towards affordability on a mass deployment level. I could see paying an additional $100 or $200 to get a tablet over a laptop, but for now the additional cost of a new iPad 3 over the laptop equivalent is a bit high out of pocket for a really good idea.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

FPS - Where's the Strategy

  Maybe I just come from a different generation of gamer. My little brother is 8 years younger than me and was big into using cheat codes in games. With the exception of Contra (up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start) there weren't any games I was enthralled with using cheat codes with for more than about 30 minutes. But he seemed to love them. He even had a Game Shark with added tons of cheat codes to Super Nintendo games. I just never saw the point.
  Also, he has always been big into First Person Shooters (FPS). I've played my fair share of FPS games. I was into Wolfenstein 3-D when it came out, played plenty of Doom. We had LAN parties of Unreal Tournament, played Quake 2 in college, and have enjoyed the strategy of Counterstrike. I remember spending many hours with friends in high school playing Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. But never have these games been my main play.
  Meanwhile, my little brother has gone through the Call of Duty, Left for Dead, Battlefield, and the Halo series as his main games for the past 10 years. Most recently he's started playing Planetside 2. I remember enjoying Planetside when it first came out. The massive FPS scale was fantastically interesting. Seeing 50+ teammates running to invade a base only to be blown apart by an enemy tank was fascinating and challenging. So like always happens when a new Free to Play game comes out, I sign up.

  Initially I was enthralled with Planetside 2. Much of the jerkiness of the original was gone. The graphics and anti lag engine had been updated significantly. They now include a certification process for getting new weapons and guns and the like that was significantly interesting and complex. Bases had also been upgraded to be less monotonous. Overall things seemed great. But after two days of playing it my interest started to fade. For one particular reason, spawn times.
  Combat is so fast paced in the game that you can often times die almost instantly after spawning. I found an enemy Sunderer which is a vehicle that acts as a spawn point. I just sat there and blasted it with my tank raking up a significant number of kills. But it wasn't the ease of killing people that deterred me. It was that within 8 seconds, they (or I) could return to the battlefield. I was able to be blasted away by my opponent on the stairs, only to respawn and immediately return fire. At one point there was an opponent hiding in a loft of a base who killed me a couple of times before I found his location. Upon my next spawn I just haphazardly tossed a grenade into the loft before he could see me.
  Blast 'em seems to best describe this type of game. It's not a game where there's a significant penalty for dying. It's not a game of heavy strategy, it seems to be more predicated on momentary skill. Avoiding the tank shot, clicking faster than the other guy, and never ever stop moving. I'm not saying that the game doesn't have strategy. But I'm not sure I'm as fond of it's type of strategy as a game such as League of Legends where dying can cause a 75 second gap in your team's numbers which can be capitalized on to make a difference over the course of the game. In a usual hour session I probably die 20-30 times. That's every 2-3 minutes. Now this is partially because I'm not great at the game. But it's also the nature of the game that doesn't punish me for dying.
  The game also allows for you to switch character classes at a spawning point or at several weapons depots located throughout the map. This means that I can instantaneously switch from my medic to and engineer to heal the spawn vehicle that is under attack to a heavy assault to take out the tank that is shooting at it. And again. If I die, I'll just switch characters then, and 8 seconds later I'm back in the action, unless they destroy my Sunderer. Then I have to run back to the location.  

  Penny Arcade's review of Planetside 2 brings up a number of very interesting points and issues with this style of game. One big thing it mentions is the lack of a story. While this isn't always a driving force, it's clear that there are 3 factions that want to kill each other. Not much else is relevant. But the battle is perpetual and unending. It's not a deathmatch scenario where the team with the most kills or flag captures wins at the end of the match. All goals are only temporary and tomorrow you'll be looking to take back the same bases you conquered last night.

  I reflect back to Counterstrike where dying was just as easy but it left you out of the match for the next 3-5 minutes. This was a significant penalty to death and therefore caution and strategy became far more important. You also made your weapon purchase decisions at the beginning of each match which would dictate the role you'd be playing for the next 5-10 minutes. I'd suggest that maybe there's a significant age difference between me at 32 and my little brother at 24 which accounts for this discrepancy. I'm open to that idea. But for now, this immediate "Blast 'em" kind of game isn't exactly what I'm looking for. Not for the maybe hour a day I have to play. I want to accomplish more with my time.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Free to Play - Pay to Win

  One of the biggest trends in gaming today is the Free to Play marketing scheme. In this environment games have no upfront costs to begin playing. They are free to download and start playing immediately. These games run the gambit from MMORPGs, Battle Arenas, to basic building games like Farm Ville. Rather than relying on required fees they are based on microtransactions where gamers can purchase enhancements for a marginal fee that assists them or gives them a leg up in playing the game. Unfortunately, for a number of these games, making microtransactions is required to actually compete in the game in any significant form.
  When a game takes on the Free to Play design they are forced to make a decision about how hard they will push the sales portion of the game. When this is handled poorly the game will frequently receive the moniker Pay to Win. In Pay to Win games a gamer can encounter some small portion of the game but in reality this is more like a Free Trial than an actual free to play game. Players are restricted to limited content and when trying to play with paying customers their power level is so substandard that they can't hope to compare. This drives anyone actually interested in the game to be required to pay to keep up.
  Even worse it is also possible that games give such advantages to paying customers that they can continue to up their power level as they pay more. While I'm willing to throw some money at a game that I'm having a good time with, I'm not interested in trying to compete with a single computer professional with a gaming addiction and a $120K a year job. If someone wants to throw $1000 per month to put them on top of the game, they win, I lose. I don't even want to play that game if that's who I'm forced to play against.

  While it seems much like this medium is doomed, there are a number of companies actually doing it right. A friend of mine tells me these are referred to in the industry as "Not Evil Companies". Perhaps the most successful of these is a company called Riot Games that makes the surprisingly addictive League of Legends. Yes it's free, and yes it's worth every penny you don't spend.
Join League of Legends HERE
  I'd like to explain just the basics of how the microtransactions work. I think in order to do that I need to explain some of the game. The game is an objective based battle arena style game based off of a popular Warcraft custom map called DOTA. With over 100 different champions available to purchase there is a huge selection making every game dynamic. Your goal is to destroy the opponents base by killing their minions and getting better items. Killing enemy champions with your champion serves to set your opponents back as well as reward some money to purchase more powerful items. While you level up and purchase items each game, you will start your next game broke and back at level one evening the playing field for newer players.
  If you were paying attention, you may have realized that above I said that you purchase champions which is true to a certain extent. There is a rotation of 10 free champions and new champions appear to be released on about three to four week basis. You are able to pay money to purchase champions, or you can play the free ones. Also, by playing games you earn points you can also use to purchase additional champions without paying any fee. Playing a couple games (20-60 min usually) a day one could reasonably afford each new champion as they came out. Older champions are generally discounted while newer ones tend to be more expensive. Considering you only play 1 champion each game having a vast selection of 50+ champions will probably dilute your skill compared to focusing on a couple of champions you're particularly fond of.
  In this model, everything you need to play the game can be obtained for free. It's not like there are champions you can only get by paying money which are prone to owning all the free to play champions. Nor are there special potions which help you do better in game. While new champions are frequently purchased by paying real money, someone content to carefully pick and choose their champions and make use of the free to play scenarios could easily find great success without paying for anything, ever.
  The only thing that you can only pay cash for are champion skins which alter the appearance of characters. While I'm occasionally jealous of specific skins that are particularly interesting or humorous, not having them doesn't make me worse at the game than another player. Perhaps I'm just not as pretty. Which is something I'm entirely familiar with in the world of getting things for free. If you're not paying for it, it may not look as nice.

  While this is a single example of free to play there are also tons of fantastic games out there that are browser based that are entirely free to play. Several of these deal with complex topics such as physics and design. A number of my students started playing Captain Forever after I witnessed them playing a moronic block dodging game. Some of them played it for hours over the weekend without realizing that they were beginning to think about balance, symmetry, opposing forces, and torque. They just think it's a game.
Captain Forever
  I feel that free to play is really going to make a significant change in how the world views gaming. Without the $250 entry cost of a console game or the $50 disk price for a computer game, there's a number of fantastic games out there that don't force you to spend anything. You just have to be careful that the free to play game you're playing doesn't include a marketing scheme that demands you to pay money to get past level six. There are great free to play games out there, you just have to find them.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

SmartBoards as essential teaching tools?

  This topic came out of a discussion with the elementary teachers in my school about wanting SmartBoards in their classrooms. I want to point out that I'm not intending to specifically respond to them. I've realized I feel a specific resistance towards SmartBoards in myself that I want to explore in this post. I hope no one feels attacked. Also, I use the term SmartBoards even though there are a number of other companies that make devices that compete with Smart Technologies. Much like Kleenex, and even more so in technology, we tend to attach ourselves to whatever came along first. If you don't believe me open a word processing document and look at what the save icon is. That's a floppy disk. Now try to think of the last time you used a floppy disk -- no, that was a zip drive -- there you go.

  Secondly, I want to be sure that everyone who reads this knows that I'm not arguing against using the SmartBoard in your classroom. If you have one, use it. I'd rather have one than not, and there are thousands of uses for them. This article is to discuss if having a SmartBoard in every classroom should be considered necessary technology in the same way that a whiteboard or chalkboard is commonly found in every room.

What you find in a teaching station

  When you walk into a classroom what do you expect to find? There will be desks or tables, chairs for the students. Usually you'll find a teacher's desk of some sort, storage for supplies. The teaching station is specifically the area around some sort of desk or podium on which technology resides. My current teaching station is comprised of a laptop, extra monitor, projector, speakers, and a whiteboard. I have a pull down screen but I'd rather just project directly on the whiteboard. Last year this also included a microphone, built in speakers, scanner, keyboard and mouse, computer dock, student clickers, and a SmartBoard.
Teaching station at University of San Francisco
  I, along with most teachers I know, use the computer and projector every day. Speakers are frequently used and are easily worth adding considering their low cost. The whiteboard has definitely become industry standard; there are still some teachers that use blackboards and to some degree the white board becomes more of a static fixture in a room with a SmartBoard. The extra monitor I find incredibly useful with the projector as I use the spare to show what is on the screen behind me running an extended desktop rather than just showing what is on my screen to the world. It allows me to have my grade book, email and other more sensitive files open on my computer without having to worry about accidentally showing it off to my students. Plus the additional screen space when trying to create presentations and pull information from the web prevents me from having to flip back and forth between multiple windows as often. I could live without the extra monitor, but with cheap monitors running around $100 it seems to good a deal not to buy.

The SmartBoard Question

  When I had a SmartBoard in my room during my student teaching and last year, I used it every day. I only used the whiteboard for random breakouts during math and to post the weekly homework for everyone to see. Almost all classwork, entry task assignments, and corrections were done with use of the SmartBoard and projector. There were other teachers that used the SmartBoard for a number of purposes that I'll discuss later on here. Needless to say, they were used, heavily. The question I'm curious about is if they're worth the cost. Not if they serve a purpose.
  Looking at the cost we see that the current range for interactive white boards is between $1000 and $4000. I've seen a few conference sessions about making your own using a Wii which could significantly decrease the cost. While practical on an individual level this isn't the sort of decision that is going to be employed across a district. Additionally to the fees for buying the board is the cost of mounting both it and the projector. While the projector is necessary technology mounting it isn't necessary, even if it is best practice. So we should probably assume in the $2500 range for this piece of technology in order to get it a significant size, assuming that the teacher has all the other equipment to make use of it. Sizes of up to 94 inches are available but the cost also increases significantly.

The Issues 

  Unlike a projector screen (or as I'm currently doing just projecting on a white board) there isn't much flexibility once the smart board is in place. While a mounted projector can be turned off and the board used for other purposes, the interactive white board takes up prime classroom real estate all the time. It goes front and center. While I've used a smart board on wheels that could be rolled around the continual need for adjustment really makes this not worth it. The dead center of your teaching pallet is basically reserved for the machine. While this isn't a massive issue all the time it can be frustrating when you want to draw a timeline across your entire white board.
  Newer boards are getting to the point where multiple touches are standard allowing for multiple students to use the device at once. One problem I encountered was having multiple students work on the space at the same time.
  Size is becoming less of an issue. 77in seems to be the new standard which does meet the needs of most classrooms. My own projector is currently running at 68in diagonal and is meeting my needs just fine. Some of the earlier versions sat at 48in (they're still available) which ends up being horribly small for most classroom uses. Boards this size are still useful for conference room type settings but they don't really function in a classroom.

The Uses

  There is a handful of specific uses that you can do with a smartboard that you can't pull off with just a projector. The first one is easy display of functioning websites. A presenter doesn't need to go back to a computer to forward slides or click on webpages. While a clicker does perform several of these functions, the ability to easily click on hyperlinks has significant value.
Smart Technologies
  One other advantage is that you can use the screen as a giant iPad. I've seen teachers use this for organizing games, students taking their own attendance, or several other uses. It allows anyone access to come up and manipulate what's on the screen without having to get access to the teacher's computer. I've utilized this both as a large interactive whiteboard as well as putting online worksheets on the board and I can write on the directly.
  One of the biggest features of an interactive whiteboard really isn't that valuable in most classrooms. The ability to save work on the board. This was described to me as highly valuable in engineering scenarios where people are doing a long series of design type work and want to share and keep the results. In my math classroom it hasn't been necessary. I've used it for lists in language arts but this was more for dramatic effect than to actually save the specific work done. It does allow you to quickly copy down what is on the board and move on to a fresh screen. You can move on without actually erasing anything. This means earlier problems can be brought back up in the same session. This is valuable, though not vital.
  I feel that the full picture of uses hasn't been fully developed for interactive whiteboards but the technology is quickly being eclipsed by tablets. If information can be pushed to student tablets they gain all the touch functionality that you would have with the screen at their desk. I'm sure there are all kinds of creative things that can be done with touch screens but I don't feel that realistically most teachers will optimize their usage.

Cost Benefit Analysis

Apple iPad
  Bearing the $2500 price tag is really a big deterrent to bringing Smartboards into every classroom in my opinion. With the current price of tablets reaching down into the $200 range, paying the price of 10 tablets to outfit a classroom with a piece of technology with no mandatory uses feels like a significant waste of money to me. The Smartboard from 3 classrooms could give an entire set of tablets to one classroom.
  While it definitely does cool stuff I don't see enough practical uses in most classrooms. Perhaps in a college science setting or maybe even advanced high school math there are some reasons why people should have one. But overall I feel that this is more of a want from people than a need. In a classroom a Smartboard is a big shiny. It's something that stands out as cool and fun. But it just doesn't bring with it the educational bang for its buck that makes it a necessary investment for schools.

3D Game Lab, First Update

  As part of the teacher camp for 3D Game Lab they want us to note down things in a journal or blog of some sort. Rather than use their internal tool I'll share things here.

  First off upon getting in you have the ability to easily pick the starter quest. Completing it leads you to 4 new options. I'm not entirely sure that the titles picked by the creators were as good as possible for these quests as I didn't want to click on one because it seemed to exist only for the purpose of making a report of an issue. Actually it was a required quest that showed me how to make a report. Important lesson, name your quests well.

  I also very quickly found that I wanted to earn more XP. I simply couldn't help it. One more quest, this one is worth 25 xp. That bar could get more filled -- I got a rank up -- I have more quests available, I should look at them before I log off -- maybe I'll just do this one -- or two. Now I'm a big fan of learning so maybe this is personal and won't be as present in my students. But the simple fact that I can see my work increasing a score makes me want to get a few more points.

  From a teaching and learning perspective this is fairly revolutionary. Students are generally given a task that may or may not be graded. If they do well, they are rewarded with a good grade. If they do poorly, they are punished with a bad grade. That's the end of the story. Perhaps a teacher will give students the chance to return to their work to try to improve their grade. But these are generally only awarded to students with significantly inferior scores. The student with a B that will keep working until they get an A is generally left in the dust. 
  Here suddenly we can go beyond this model and actually hold all students to a higher standard. It's not done until it's A work. But you can keep on working on it until it gets there. It becomes a great way to always be moving forward without the millstone of previous failures. If learning is about making mistakes, why doesn't everyone get the chance to try again. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's a Tech Teacher to do: Pirated Software

  I ran into a very interesting struggle as I was working with my Juniors. I wanted to see if anyone could successfully log into the Minecraft server I had set up so I asked them who had a copy of Minecraft. About half a dozen hands shot up. So I asked if one of them could log into my server. One student stopped to ask if he needed a legal copy of Minecraft to log in. When I told the class that the server was an account verified server suddenly there wasn't anyone able with an account that could log in.
  Interesting factoid #1: 1/3 of my students have a copy of Minecraft. None of them have paid for it. I then found myself having to ask my other classes if anyone had a "legal" copy of Minecraft. Surprisingly enough, it was the 6th graders who had a number of students (3) with actual legal accounts.
  Interesting factoid #2: The most common response I got to my question about a legal copy was "oh, no, mine's not legal". Students were open and ready to admit that their software was acquired through less than savory channels. The simple fact that I had to ask about a legal copy indicates an interesting posture on the use of pirated software.
Teaching with Regards to Pirating
  So where does this leave us as teachers of technology. I can't be the teacher who ignorantly preaches total opposition alcohol while going home to drink a glass of wine. I can't just say it's bad don't do it. I also can't really discuss the legal implications of taking this action. Students already know their actions are illegal, it is evident in their language. Realistically teaching the about the punishment if they're caught won't really work either as the chances of an individual getting busted for pirating software is incredibly low.
  So what can I teach? In the end I'm forced to view pirating software much like speeding. It's possible to get busted for it, but that's not where the real danger lies. The issue with speeding is that it is dangerous. This doesn't mean that people don't speed. It means that they need to understand what it means to speed, how much danger it puts them in, and how to react when something does wrong. Most of us would barely call speeding illegal. It is more of something we could get in trouble for but is totally okay to do.
  There are a few very valuable lessons that can be taught surrounding pirated software that go beyond "it's bad, mmkay?". This is necessary primarily because attempting to oppose pirating on a purely moral basis simply won't work. Speeding is illegal because it puts others in danger and ourselves. We know this, but that alone doesn't change the behavior.

The Teaching Points on Pirated Software
  The dangers of pirated software come from an understanding of working with people that are operating outside of the law. Much like the dangers of druggies and drug dealers. These are people that are willing to act outside of the law with regards to how they make a living. If someone is willing to evade police in order to sell drugs, they're probably willing to rip you off or steal money from you. You can't exactly report to the police that you were scammed trying to buy drugs. Similar things exist in the realm of pirated software.
  Someone who is interested in cracking software to make it publicly available may not be doing so for purely altruistic means. When you're not getting software directly from a trusted manufacturer you don't know what has been altered or imbedded in the installation files. Viruses, spyware, and other possible infections are fairly common among pirated files. Even if you find a file that looks like it is from a trusted pirate source, you don't know if someone has simply repackaged it to include a virus. However, these aren't the only dangers.
  I'm constantly reminding my students that we are on a publicly owned network. The school is publicly owned and students need to behave appropriately with its resources. The same may apply in future business situations. Students simply can't use the school network for illegal purposes. When something goes out to BitComet I get a report back and have to deal with it. Simply being aware of who has access to your network information may play a significant role in understanding the dangers of pursuing illegal activity. Especially since your home IP knows every website you've been to, every search you've made, and every file you've downloaded. The information is recorded that you have been doing something illegal. At school you might lose access to the network. At home, we don't know what the long term implications will be, but your information there simply isn't exclusively private.
  The final teaching point is the danger of using pirated software for business. While downloading a game and playing it at home poses minimal risk, creating media with illegal software can be catastrophic for a business. Personal use is a difficult thing to nail down. But a company that makes a product using illegal software is open up to much more liability than an individual using something illegally. This is why it is incredibly important that legal enterprises have legal copies of the software they are using.

  I feel that reasonable tech people can't simply teach that pirating software is wrong. This kind of moral teaching just won't go far enough to reach students. In a similar way we can't simply teach students that violence is wrong, sex is wrong and name calling is wrong. Each of these things have their place in the world. The important piece is to teach students to understand the dangers and consequences of these things. With this understanding they can find their own place in the world, rather than trying to fall into a proscribed idyllic and totally hypocritical perfect student or person.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

How Standards are Reprofessionalizing Teaching

and Why Teachers Hate Them.

   Mentioning state standards, or common core standards, in a room full of teachers is sure to bring forth a varied response. However, the variance usually ranges from general displeasure to raw hatred. I'm not talking about the legendary teachers of the Michelle Rhee firing sprees that are filling the seat only to collect a paycheck. I'll be honest, I don't know any of those. I'm talking about good, dedicated teachers with creative styles and numerous effective ways to engage students. Standards have left a bad taste in their mouth.
  I can assure you this isn't because teachers don't feel that it makes sense to set some sort of expectations on what students will learn in certain grades. I have no doubt that every teacher has expectations of what their students should have known before they entered their classroom and expectations about what they will know when they leave. It also isn't because teachers are lazy, illiterate bumpkins that just want to use last year's worksheets. Of the many colorful words I can use to describe my worst teachers in my own education, lazy simply isn't one of them. I think we have to give teachers the benefit of the doubt that there really is something wrong with standards that is riling them up.

  One of the first issues teachers run into with standards is that they are absurdly general. Take the following example from 6th grade Social Studies in the Washington State ELARs "Understands the role of government in the world’s economies through the creation of money, taxation, and spending in the past or present." I've taught 6th grade Social Studies and I'm not sure I understand the role of government in the world's economies. The lack of clarity is daunting. To what level must they understand the role of government, by creation of money are we talking printing money or propelling economies through government debt, and most of all does any one out there actually understand the world's economies? Let's not forget, this is a 6th grade standard. We're talking 12 year olds here. Most of them struggle to remember to bring in 25 cents on Friday for popcorn and seem surprised that I won't give them my money because they forgot theirs.
  If the standards aren't difficult enough to comprehend and apply to every day teaching there is always the fluid nature of them to consider. Since 1989 there have be no less than ten different sets mathematics standards that have crossed math teacher's desks. At best a long running set of standards could stick around for 3 or 4 years before being eclipled by a new set. A timeline can be found HERE which details the numerous state and national standards and changes that have been implemented to them. Sometimes new sets didn't supersede the old sets, they just applied on top of them giving teachers more to cover within the same timeframe but without adding school days in which to get it
done. With Common Core around the corner there has been a number of online resources put up to "aid teachers" in professional development. However, most teachers have not received any professional development hours from their district to make this change. New sets of standards often times mean teachers must independently make the shift to a new set of expectations that will probably fall to the wayside before they get fully realized in the classroom.
  The final piece that really gets teachers fired up is that standardized test scores on these standards are now threatening to be used to judge a good teacher versus a bad teacher. If I'm teaching a class in which I have a student that for reasons out of my control misses class at least once a week, I'm now being judged based on what I can teach them in 140 out of sequence days of a set of standards that I could never fit into 180 days to begin with. This same set of standards that I can't actually figure out what they actually mean, I've never been trained on, and seem to change on a 2.5 year cycle. And if kids that came into my class three grades behind the expected place leave at one year behind, I'm still considered a failure. Yeah, standards kind of suck the big one.


  Oddly enough, teacher's hatred of standards and everything that gets balled up with them misses the good that they have done our profession. Anyone reading through the endless lists of standards quickly begins to realize that they are so wonderfully general, vague, and unclear, that it actually allows teachers to do what we entered the profession to do -- reach students. After so many years of very bad scripted curriculum (these years aren't over by the way, there's just now ways to fight back against them) teachers are beginning to enter their classroom armed with knowledge of the standards and the burning desire to reach students at any cost.
  When all you have is a curriculum book and you're told to teach, you're hamstrung before you even get into the class. You have to follow that book through thick or thin. Admittedly this is still the case in many districts. However, for those willing to fight for it, the standards provide excellent protection for those interested in real teaching. Rather than being bound by stale curriculum, a teacher can find a method they feel will reach students and tie it to standards with many interesting results.
   Take the zombie based learning curriculum which meets a number of Washington State Standards and I'm sure will also be adapted to meet common core standards as well when they come out. This is something that would be totally unimaginable in a prestandards teaching environment. But when you look at the web of social studies standards that David Hunter created, you can't argue that the teaching is irrelevent simply because you don't like it. It has official support in the form of goals that were created by the state to say what students need to learn. In short, teachers are empowered by standards because they only say what students should learn, not how to teach them.
  When a teacher builds an activity and ties it to standards, the pressure is removed from the teacher to prove that their teaching effective. They have a clear list of the standards that the activity is aimed for and this presents clear goals for the students. It places the burden of proof on the district and administration's to show that the lesson is not actually successfully teaching those standards. This is a much harder argument to make and one that most districts simply won't pursue. Considering that the teachers that are going out of their way to develop specialized curriculum that meets their student's needs as individuals are going to be the teachers taking the hard route for the good of their students, there is little concern that these teachers will be trying to support substandard curriculum with standards. It is for those teachers who are fighting for the academic freedom to actually teach the students in their room that the standards can be a fantastic tool.

  When so much energy is being put into deprofessionalizing teaching through scripted curriculum, standardized testing, automated testing, and distance learning, Having a solid group of standards to base your own projects and lessons around gives teachers the edge they need to show how vital their work really is. If standards could be consistent, comprehensible, fair, and trained, they could allow teachers to create the classrooms that they entered the profession to have. Ones full of creativity, activity, and fun.

A few examples below are some Washington state standards and potential out side of the box curriculum teachers.

6th grade social studies - Constructs and analyzes maps using scale, direction, symbols, legends and projections to gather information.

 Possible Curriculum: StarEdit (starcraft's map editing tool), Civilization, treasure hunts, Geocashing

8th grade social studies - Analyzes how the forces of supply and demand have affected the production, distribution, and consumption of goods, services, and resources in the United States

in the past or present.

Possible Curriculum: Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Any Tycoon Game

6th grade mathematics - Determine the experimental probability of a simple event using data collected in an experiment.

Possible Curriculum: Any survey, board game, RPG, dice game or gambling game, ever.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Digital Generation

  With a number of recent derogatory comments appearing about the current generation on Facebook and from other sources, as well as endless commentary about what this generation means to us, I feel it is necessary for me to make my own stab at defining a generation, or two.
  Having just this week added another member to the next generation I feel that perhaps we're running too big of a lump as a single generation. While I never end up falling into Generation X regardless of where you draw the line, currently the lines that are drawn include both my newborn son and 4 year old daughter in my generation. While I'm not a genealogist, I'm pretty sure that my kids must be in a different generation from me. That's how family trees work right?
  However, I'm forced to place myself with the generation of Digital Natives, those born into a digital age. While this clearly isn't true of all people born in 1980, I was raised with a computer in my house at age 4, one in my bedroom at age 12, and internet access in its own modified form by age 14. I didn't get a cell phone until age 23 and only picked up a smartphone a little over a year ago. But as I sat in my in-law's house last week, I was surrounded by no less that six laptops, three smartphones, and numerous other pieces of modern technology. While my own kids already have a significant leap on me, I still think of the world in primarily digital terms.
  Recent reports I've heard about Generation Y, or as I'll call it the Digital Generation, have indicated a number of "disturbing" trends. First off the Digital Generation is far more likely to live with their parents than previous recent generations. With large numbers of post college graduates returning to their parents homes up to ages in the early thirties. Also, we show a distinct lack of interest in buying new cars which has sent American motor companies into a bit of a tizzy trying to unlock the huge market share that seems relatively complacent to drive their parent's old cars or other used vehicles. Also, the immediacy of home ownership seems to generally be absent. I happen to be among the very few of my friends that actually own a home, even though I'm currently renting.
  Many of these concrete desires of the Baby Boomers seem to hold a much lower priority. It has been suggested that some of these problems arise from a stagnant job market, inflated home prices, and unmanageable student debt. This could have some noticeable effect but I think there's more to the Digital Generation than simply being lazy or stuck in a bad economy. Most importantly, I don't think the world is ready for us, especially in education.

  While innovators have for a long time been decrying the pacifying effects of a fact based education, the Digital Generation really objects to it. While even as late as the 1980s, facts were still only found in books. Anyone who has written a report before the advent of the internet remembers the struggles of both finding and then reading a vast number of books simply to get the information readily available on wikipedia today. Today facts are in my pocket. If I want to know what year Henry VIII died I could just look it up on my phone, and have the answer in less than a minute. But really, who cares when he died?
  The Digital Generation not only understands how to access this information, they're rightfully insulted by being asked the question. Much like the coffee stand questions of ole, any basic fact is available by punching a few words into my phone. If you aren't going to ask a more intelligent question than that, why should I bother answering.
  The truth is that what our generation never received proper education on is the practical skills that are now being demanded of us in the job market. Collaboration, project management, and problem solving are the basis of huge portions of the work that we do on a daily basis. Sociology, power dynamics, and empathy are the tools which are allowing people to climb the ladders in the work place. Artistic presentation, meaningful interpretation, and presentation skills are vital to even finding our way into an interview. The only thing we need beyond that is some sort of technical expertise that reflects our interests such as a needed programming language, understanding of the workings of medical billing, or terminology specific to the construction industry. None of the above things were I taught in school for the most part. I learned more of them in Journalism, Photography, and on the playground at lunch than I did in English, Math, or Science class.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Surving the Night - My Minecraft Adventure

First off this isn't my first foray into minecraft. I have some experience from a couple of years ago (maybe more) so I remember a number of the basic designs. But apparently not as much as I'd hoped.

My starting location was right by this nice valley with a big open ocean on one side and down the valley it leads to a desert area. The hills are covered with trees and stand ten to fifteen blocks above the bottom of the valley. First off I find a tree that looks like it's decayed somewhat. This isn't something I remember but it looks like coal. I was thinking that perhaps an old tree could turn into coal if not harvested too long -- or something. Turns out this is alder wood. Oh well. Alder is good too. I think it's harder than pine which is what the rest of the trees probably are so perhaps it can make better tools.

I get to work harvesting enough wood to make a mining pick and have a fair bit spare. I drop into valley and pick a little spot to start digging in. I get a suitable little room made, make a craftingbox, a furnace, and a stone sword. It turns out my little hillside vally is covered in pigs. An unusually high number of pigs. One of these will make fine food, perhaps two. I trap one pig by building a dirt enclosure two bricks high around it. I'm saving that one for later. I cut down some grass and pick up wheat seeds and try to figure out how to plant them. Then it's getting dark.

I run into my hole and quickly make a door. I throw the door up and look around for something to do. The total absence of coal has left me unable to cook my pork, unable to see in my hole, and unable to successfully mine in new directions without falling into the darkness of an unclear wall. Then I remember that the furnace will put off light when active, but alas, no coal.  Then I decide to see how well my alder burns. I throw some pork steaks on the barbie and get a nice alder smoke going. There's enough light for me to continue working until the morning. However, it's going to be difficult to mine without more light of some sort. My next venture will have to be to look for some coal somewhere -- or maybe just stay here and work on a fence to keep my trapped pig safe.

In the end I did figure out how to use the hoe to plant the wheat, for some reason right clicking just never occured to me until I looked it up. I also think that the first place I was trying was too close to the spawn point making any attempts I made unsuccessful. It also appears that alder is just like other wood but looks different. There goes my hopes of an Ironwood Axe being invented into the game.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Letters of Love

  A classmate of mine in the Evergreen Masters in Teaching (MiT) program named Monear said something I'll never forget. It was during our student teaching seminars where we would gather once a week and share struggles and successes of the week, and review our work on the ungodly project that went along with student teaching. Monear and I didn't agree on most things, I wouldn't ever say we got along well. But this was the most important thing I learned in my two years of teaching education.
  She said, "The great thing about teaching... is that you get to fall in love with 150 students. The only problem is," her voice cracking at this point from the stress and emotion of the work we're putting into countless hours of prep for student teaching, "it's really hard to be in love with 150 different people at once."
  This year I must be fortunate, I only have 75 students to fall in love with. I'll be honest, I don't find loving them hard. I find it a little too easy.
  My application essay when I was applying to the MiT program was focused around a discussion on how we care for those we help much more than those that help us. This realization I came to a few years ago was based around my experiences with the growth of my own daughter, and relating that to a distancing relationship with my own parents as holiday visits had to become less frequent and my own life more stable. The idea became clear to me that when someone extends themselves to help another, they have invested significantly more into the other person than the person being helped has invested in them. In this way the success of someone you've invested into of greater interest.
  I've spent the last year investing my life into 75 students, specifically the 25 of my homeroom with whom I average about 2 hours per school day with. They are 25 twelve year olds with interests ranging from hockey to Magic, and poetry to makeup. A very diverse, talkative, and typical group of 6th graders.
  In following with a tradition that I saw done by a Spanish teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma named Hannah Chin-Pratt, I wrote a letter to each of my students at the end of the year. These letters were straight from my heart. Talking about struggles I'd experienced working with them, great things that they've done, things I'd come to expect from them over the year, and areas that they've grown. It also included some final words of advice as they move onto middle school. Some were funny, some were direct, but all were heartfelt. Even while writing them, I ended up shedding more than a few tears.
  When it came time to give them to my students, I was pretty apprehensive. I wasn't going to wuss out and hand them out silently like a student passing a note in class. These were my feelings and if my students were going to learn anything it'd be to show how you really feel. I was going to pull each student up in front of the class, and read their letter. I started in the back of the alphabet. I told the first student how proud I was of him working on paying attention to how what he said would affect those around him, even if they weren't listening. He apparently spent the next period proudly reading the letter aloud to his next class, even though most of the students were there when I read it to him. The next student I told that no one can make her feel bad unless they let her and remember that sometimes you are the best at something but other people won't realize it. Her mother let me know that on the way home she broke down crying and was incredibly pensive for the rest of the night.
  And so the time went on, tears frequently streaming down my face, my voice cracking every few letters. But I read every student their letter. Told them I was proud, concerned, and that I cared about them. I showed them that I knew them, I was on their side, and that I loved them.
  My relationship with many students altered that day, but not totally. The next day some of the usual rowdy behavior showed up on the field trip; students were asked sit down, not scream, and spit out their gum as usual. But there was a certain shyness in glances I got from students; nods of approval from some of the boys. It was as if something intimate passed between us in that letter. They knew that I knew. They knew that I cared. Like a smile you share after a first kiss with a girl you're interested in, you know things are going to be different. Better, somehow. Knowing that they like you too.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Why can't school be like this all the time?

  Last week was the Bainbridge Island first STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) camp. I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the teachers to participate in the inaugural edition of what is sure to become an annual camp. It was a week long day camp with students broken up into their interest area in either Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math.

  There were 8 Bainbridge Island Teachers (from Sakai, Woodward, or Commodore) to support approximately 100 students. There were also 20 volunteer counselors from Bainbridge High School. Needless to say, this was an ideal learning environment.
  The week progressed with each morning having a spectacular science type event followed by three one hour and twenty minute periods spent in your primary class. The entire week held a space theme and we even had a visit from a brilliant NASA astronaut, John Fabian. Students spent the week making rockets, programming robots, building solar cars and editing videos. Students were engaged, intrigued, and learning.

  To get an idea of what the week was like watch the following video which was made by the students in my Technology class:

BISD STEM Camp Video 2012

  This brings up the question, why isn't school like this all the time? Students are heavily engaged in critical thinking, problem solving, hands on learning, storymaking, programming, and just about everything else we'd possibly want for our future engineers and scientists. Students were using angles to calculate the height of the rocket and movement of robots. They were bringing details together to create a narrative about a specific class looking at basic story elements. They were doing 3d modeling and printing their creations to test a hypothesis. Is there really anything more we want?

  There are a few things here that are possibly worth looking at. First off, what students are learning can't be tested. We have some kind of sick fascination with the belief that learning that can't be tested isn't real learning. Over the past year, I feel some of the best learning done by my students wasn't on any subject that could be tested. The most important skills aren't knowledge but social skills, confidence, and self advocacy. We can really only test knowledge. This leads into the next issue about what shows up on standardized tests and state standards.

  For anyone who's read any of the Washington state standards (and leading into the Common Core standards) you'd know that these standards are actually a very good target for learning. They are aimed at broad conceptual points and include the ability to think and analyze, not simply regurgitate. However, somewhere between the standards and the curriculum, this gets lost. Again, if you can't test students to show your curriculum works, how can you sell it as successful.

  But the camp was successful, students learned, and there was no test at the end. Would a test have driven more students to work harder? I doubt it. It also would have made the entire process less fun. But I'm not sure that we could guarantee the same success with 28 kids and no assistants. We had a 1 to 12 student to teacher ratio with 2 high school volunteers per 10 students. We also had a $200 budget for the week per class. I know that public education can't successfully work that way. But maybe if it was just a little more similar...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

3D Game Lab Camp on the horizon

  On top of everything else going on in my life (moving, new job, baby due in August, brother in law's wedding) I'll be embarking on designing my technology classes using 3D Game Lab for the upcoming year. This will be the basis for assignments in my three technology classes next semester. In the future I'll be updating what this looks like in practice.

  For those not familiar with 3D Game Lab it is a web based program being designed by the Boise State University to track student achievement in an experience point completion based model. What this means is that a student has a number of options as far as assignments (called quests) to choose from and each will give an experience point reward upon completion. Completion of certain quests may unlock other quests and the instructor may grant certain awards (called badges) for students that deserve something special for completion of a particular assignment.

  In this model student grades can be based on the experience points that students earn as well as earning certain badges. An expectation for a student may be to earn 1000 exp to get an A as well as complete 3 badges that signify content area completion. However, earning these badges will only grant 500 of the total experience required allowing students to pick which assignments they will complete to earn the remaining points. An instructor could have 3000 possible points from quests allowing students to pick a number of areas that they wish to focus in or allow them to spread out and experience a number of particular areas.

  With a clear goal at the beginning of the quarter or semester, students can pace themselves to reach their necessary goals. Students can also repeat an unsuccessful quest to learn the material and show mastery. Consider how different this is from traditional education. In a traditional classroom you learn teacher selected material and then are tested to prove your knowledge. If you fail to show mastery you are punished with a bad grade and the class moves on to a new subject. If you succeed, you are rewarded with a good grade and are forced to move on to a new subject, regardless of your interest in the area you've just completed.

  This very model turns education on its head. It is student directed and standards based, with clear expectations and endless options. Students are working towards a clear goal at their own pace. They can pick the assignments that fit their interests, current mood, or time available. The education is accessible at home, at school, or anywhere that there is an internet connection.

  Of course this model does have its problems. First off it basically requires a 1 to 1 student/computer ratio. I happen to be fortunate that I have this option in my upcoming position, even if it is just limited to netbooks. Secondly, it assumes that quest completion is equivalent across the board. Regardless of how any one quest was completed, students are essentially awarded the same experience. While instructors have the option to send a student back to do more work on a quest before it is completed, there is something inherently different from a student who is able to complete work successfully the first time with  minimal guidance, and the student that may finally complete it after submitting seven failed versions. Finally, it is still product oriented. Students are required to build something and are ultimately judged on the product rather than the process. Unfortunately, learning remains a process, not a product. I've learned tons by creating something crappy, and I've created things perfectly but didn't manage to learn anything. I'm not sure that this problem can really be successfully addressed in education, but I'm not afraid to hope it can.

  I'm curious to see how this plays out in my classroom and I look forward to make additional reports. While it is clear that education is not the panacea of society, it may be that the internet is the panacea of education.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Measurement of Academic Progress (MAP Testing) Year 1

  I just finished my first year of MAP testing. It's the first year that Bainbridge Island School District is doing it as a whole. We tested the Math test 3 times and I handled proctoring it for each of my classes. I want to share some of my feelings regarding it here for others who have the data or are considering using the test.
  For those not familiar with MAP testing it is a pretty good test as far as tests go. Students are asked 52 questions and the computer adjusts difficulty to find the sweet spot for what students are able to answer successfully. Students are asked questions that are more and more difficult as they continue get them right, and easier questions as they get them wrong. Ideally it should be able to successfully place a student's score within a few points and compare it to national averages to see where they rank.
  Normal grade level increases are approximately 6 points per grade though the results change a bit year after year. The intent of this is that the test remains somewhat static so that students see growth in the academic area, rather than taking a test in which the bar to pass is simply raised each year. As we are all too familiar with the thought that if I couldn't jump 5'6 last year, I probably can't jump 5'8 this year. MAP allows students to display what they know on a continual year over year scale focuses more on their advancement from last year or last test, rather than how high they jumped compared to everyone else.

My Results

  Looking at my homeroom my students averaged just over a 6 point increase with a range of -6 to +16 points between fall and spring tests. The test projects a 6 point increase for students and it exactly matches what I found, sort of. Much in kind with statistics, no student experienced a 6 point gain exactly. The problem with this data is not it's use globally, but it's application locally.
  From a school wide perspective, this means that I averaged a years worth of growth from my students in the area of mathematics. On some levels I have to consider this success. I stepped into a teaching role five days before the start of the year with a curriculum I was totally unfamiliar with and managed to pull off an average growth from my students. Increases were also fairly evenly distributed across the spectrum with some students with very low scores in fall increasing significantly as well as some students with very high scores initially improving as much as 12 points. Statistically speaking, I've been a successful teacher.

What do these results mean?

  Where things change are from the individual perspective, which is what each parent will see when the results are sent home. An average of 6 means that approximately as many students showed average growth as the number that did not. How will parents feel seeing that their student advanced half a grade for a years worth of work? This data will be used to judge teachers, if only by the teachers themselves. Is this really a fair way to do so?
  Of course a student with a six point loss didn't lose a year of knowledge, just as a student with a 16 point gain didn't suddenly advance their understanding from a 6th to a 9th grade level in mathematics. In other classes I've seen 12 to 14 point losses. Disappointing sure. But it doesn't really mean too much other than the student had a bad day. Now a student who, year after year, continues to show no advancement could become cause for concern. Also there's a good feeling when a student makes a noticeable gain and maintains it over time. But on an individual level, these scores are thin string of data points that don't really indicate much to me as a teacher, or possibly as a parent.

  There's continual fear of testing becoming a method to evaluate teacher success. While the Washington State MSP would be a travesty in this role, I'm not sure that MAP solves this issue either. The fact that I have scores of 75 students will help average out inconsistencies. But using MAP as a basis, I'm an average teacher. I think we'll find that most teachers are average teachers. Those who truly increase scores are probably focusing more on the kinds of questions that boost scores on the test, regardless of the students enjoyment and engagement.

  Again, this comes to the question of "what does good teaching look like?" I don't know the entire answer to that question but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't look like high test scores.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Role of Technology in Curriculum

  I've been giving a lot of thought to the nature of teaching technology. This is becoming especially pertinent as I move into a technology integration and support role in my new position on Lopez Island. However, even before this, as I was attending the NCCE (Northwest Council for Computer Educators) conference and interviewing for said position, I have begun to discover how much what we teach is controlled by the teacher's interests.
  I don't mean this in a negative way, by any means. When I moved into my current room which belonged to a much beloved math teacher, I noticed the walls were adorned with a significant amount of hockey paraphernalia. He even had a classroom management tool in which a slider moved a hockey figure from the scoring side to the defending side of the ice, presumably to match if the classroom was meeting it's goals of being quiet and working hard. His class sign was taped to a hockey stick. I thought, "This man loves him some hockey."
  Now this is a totally fine method of engaging the classroom in an exciting and interesting way. I'm sure it is totally successful for him to manage student behavior. However, when I took over the room, the hockey had to go. Not that I have anything against hockey, at least, not any more than any other professional sport which I despise like the costly drain on humanity that they are. But I am not a hockey guy. I couldn't possibly teach with hockey as my vehicle.

Three versions of 6th grade Social Studies

  A friend from my masters cohort named David Hunter has a kick-starter project going right now that is totally worth taking a look at. He's using a zombie apocalypse scenario to teach the basic concepts of the "Beginnings of Civilization" portion of 6th grade social studies. He calls this Zombie-Based Learning. I'll be honest, after having taught 6th grade social studies from a textbook during student teaching, this sounds pretty awesome. It's something that I feel the majority of my 6th graders would be interested in and those who aren't would be fewer than basic textbook style learning. His project is almost funded twice over and he's looking to put it up on open source sharing so anyone can use it. This is cool. (You don't have to watch the whole video, it's 25 minutes long.)
  But wait, before I jump onto the zombie style social studies there's a teacher in the mid west that's using Civilization (the video game) to teach the same concept. Now I love me some Civ. I especially love the early game where you decide where to start and build your first couple of cities. Once you get past that I'm less interested in developing nuclear technologies, but the early stages are awesome. And I can totally see how this works as the game does a great job mimicking concepts such as proximity to water, type of land and so on. You can hear more from this teacher on his podcast at Edreach called edGamer. Clearly awesome.
  But the fun doesn't stop there. At a teacher named Lucas Gillispie is doing the same thing through minecraft. He's having students decide where to settle, build a society, divide labor, and deal with property ownership issues in a virtual realm. This is totally inclusive Beginnings of Civilization. The students are actually starting a civilization of sorts and dealing with the interpersonal issues that are sure to come. These are a number of ways that technology are being used in the same subject.
  Now on my 6th grade team we have a wonderful teacher that handles social studies. She uses a number of physical diorama type projects having students build a pharaoh's tomb, a Sumerian city, tablets, cubes, and tons of other cool physical objects. Students get hands on to try to picture what it would look like, then use basic hands on manipulation to create things to replicate these items from the past. Still, another very cool way to study 6th grade social studies. The only difference between the previous three teachers and my team teacher is that the others are under 40, and she is over 60.

Who should be teaching what?

  When I attended the NCCE I discovered a number of fantastic tools but the one that really stuck with me was called wevideo. I'll talk about that particular tool more in a later post once I've finished the experience of using it with my students. However, it'll suffice to say that it's a free online video editing tool. Free is the magic word in public education. Of all the tools I saw at the conference, this was the one I was most interested in. Why? Well I happen to have a bachelors degree in Film and Digital Media Production. This is the tool I need to bring something I love to any students, anywhere. I began planning immediately to bring it into my classroom.
  All of the teachers above have taken something they enjoy or find interesting and adapted it to be the medium for their teaching. As I look over the list of methods of teaching 6th grade social studies above I'm, first off, amazed with the options. They're really all great. I feel that with considerable investment I could teach any one of them and students would learn the necessary material. What I can't do is say that anyone of them is better than another.
  When I think about the veteran teacher on my team jumping into any of the "game based" learning options, I have some doubts. But she's already using a number of advanced tools that I haven't even checked out like Essay Scorer and Study Island to have more technology in her teaching. While I doubt her level of interest in zombies could sell zombie based learning to the students, if she wanted to she could definitely incorporate civilization into her curriculum. But she probably doesn't want to (I haven't actually asked her).
  Perhaps more importantly, she doesn't need to. She has a way of teaching that is engaging, hands on, project based, and detailed. Technology isn't a big part of it in the same way it is for Lucas Gillispie. It isn't as hip as David Hunter's zombies apocalypse. But it still works well. While there may be some side of me that wants to push everyone into a game based teaching and learning, it's simply not necessary to insure student learning.

Style or Substance

  Every teacher has a style. Four teachers teaching the same lesson will teach it four different ways. They'll incorporate their own experiences from their own life, they'll include misconceptions that previous students have encountered, they'll adapt it to meet their perceptions of the students that they currently have in front of them. Some may be more fun, some may be more interesting, some may help cement the information more. But with technology in the picture, what is the goal?
  I was asked in my interview on Lopez Island what are the three things every student should leave k-12 education with as far as technology goes. My answer was this:
1) International-internet citizenship
  An understanding of how to behave on the internet, how the internet behaves, and how to make use of the availability of a world-wide source of information.
2) No fear
  Fear is paralyzing. The fear of breaking technology is one of the major things that stop people from trying something new. If the fear of failing stops us from taking a step, we have failed to fear and learned nothing.
3) How to buy and set up a computer
  This probably plays into the fear aspect, but I feel that students need to understand the basic components of a computer in order to make a decision about which one they should use. Questions like hard drive space, RAM, video cards and, of course, how to set the basic thing up, connect to the internet, set up a home network. If they can do these things, the lack of fear will drive them to everything else.

  In the end, technology is a medium, just like paper and pencil, an art canvas, a lump of clay, or a block of granite. The medium must serve the artist. A writer has no use for a rock just as a sculptor has no use for strip of film. Each teacher must find a medium that they are comfortable with. They don't need to create the medium and generally best off adapting a readily available medium for their own use. But so long as they are comfortable with the medium and students are comfortable with the medium, they can use it to reach their students.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Typing vs Writing

  So today I took one of my most distracting classes into the library for writing. They're working on their final draft of their choice of one of the essays we've written in this unit. It's their choice of a review or a personal story. I gave each back with suggestions for improvement and and grades for two of the standards areas on the report card: "Writing - Conventions and Grammar" and "Writing - Style, Organization, and Content". I didn't mark up their papers pointing out mistakes. Each student received between three and five sentences of feedback consisting of a positive comment and areas I'd like see work differently.
  Writing in class, with this group in particular, has always been a challenge. They're distracted, talking, and frequently off task. The normal free write time that I give my classes at the beginning of the period, which can last up to 15 minutes with other classes, usually has to get cut off at 10 with this group. Even the fact that working on their essays in class will prevent future homework doesn't often get them quietly working away in class. The best days from a writing perspective is when someone in the class gets into major trouble, gets sent out of class, and everyone else is too frightened to talk. I can't say how good their writing is on these days, but at least they're writing.
  However, we're in the library today, and after settling in it's dead quiet. I hear the clicking of keyboards, I've had a couple of questions, and but otherwise nothing but silence and progress. Perhaps most amusing is the set up in the room which I would never permit in the classroom. Each row of computers consists of all boys or all girls with several of the loudest most off task students sitting right next to each other. But their performance is flawless. I see a few conversations crop up about spelling, sentence structure, and I couldn't be happier.
  The question I'm forced to ask is if this is a product of the computer, assignment, library space, or some other unknown factor. The class is down about 6 students today, several of the usual distracters are absent. But enough are here that Math was it's usual struggle to stay on task. The absences don't seem to be the cause.
  I remember back to my teacher education time I spent in a high school "Digitools" classroom in a not so glorious part of Tacoma High School. There the same silenced hush came over the students when they were working at the computer. These were students who were more talkative and generally off task than my group of 6th grade Bainbridge Islanders. But when the computers were the task at hand, their focus was much better and they were working on the assigned work, even when the assigned work was painfully boring.
  Now I know that there are huge amounts of unnecessary computer education. I saw students being trained to write a memo. A memo doesn't really exist any more; it's called a global email. The work that these students are doing on the computer is really no more interesting than if the work was hand written in class. It's no more relevant or less relevant than every book report they've been required to write. It's just being done on a computer.
  As an interesting comparison, I can't write. I like to think that the last good writing I did was back in high school scratching down poetry in a spiral notebook. I probably did some decent writing in college on an exam or two, though most of my professors never rewarded me with fantastic grades because of it. If I have a creative idea I can talk about it or I can type. Boy, oh, boy, can I type.
  My current estimation put me at about 140 words per minute. I can probably think just a hair faster than that so my typing can generally keep up with my thinking. The fact that the space bar on my work computer has been a little touchy has slowed me down substantially and caused significant frustration. But my creative medium is typing. I've basically been typing as long as I've been writing. For most of my students, this is even more true. My daughter could type her name before she could write it. Typing it only required finding five keys on a keyboard. Writing it requires hundreds of muscle control motions.
  Could it be that the keyboard is the natural form in which these students can write, create, and interact? Is this engagement just a novelty of being out of the classroom or could I achieve it in the classroom if I could provide a 1 to 1 ratio of computers to students? Or is this just a random alteration in morale that will fade tomorrow once they're further along on their final draft?

Report from 1 day later...

Things were not the same the next day. However, engagement was still much higher than sitting writing in the classroom ever was with this group. I guess technology can't solve all our problems. But it can make a significant difference.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Review, Remember, Retest, Relate

            So I did an interesting thing in my class yesterday. I gave a geometry test in which the front page was the exact same as a test that I had given back in November. I must say, I was both surprised and disappointed with the results. What surprised me were the results and the stratification that was exhibited.
            For the most part students who performed very well on the first round of the test performed equally as well. These are students with a strong understanding of mathematical concepts and most of the have assuredly been doing math longer and more often than their counterparts. These students generally do well and could have probably handled the majority of this page with only the equations I presented even before I taught the unit.
            It was the students that struggled to pull their work up to an acceptable level by the end of the unit that still struggled significantly. Many of these students had worked hard, very hard, to gain an understanding of the work four months ago. However, for many of them, it simply didn’t sustain. These students had managed to handle the Monday-Friday problem, but really hadn’t advanced significantly in their learning five months later.
            I’m beginning to wonder if fully summative testing is the only way to see what knowledge sticks. I had one student who astutely asked me why he couldn’t remember how to find the area of the shapes in question. I answered by asking him what they best gun in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (MW3) was.
He quickly piped up with “The MP7, but everyone thinks you’re lame if you use it.”
“What does it look like?” I asked.
He then described the gun in great detail as well as the social ramifications of using it.
“You remember what you use.” I said as I walked off to answer another question.
The chorus of “Ahhhh” that my comment drew from the table was illuminating. Every student at that table played MW3, understood the reference, and knew the gun. None of them reliably remembered how to get the area of a parallelogram.
I remember using the peg board in 2nd grade to solve square roots. While I don’t remember the exact process, I remember enjoying it and if I had all the same materials I could probably recreate it. I kept asking for more and more difficult square roots to figure out. I enjoyed it. I remember researching the Loch Ness Monster for my 6th grade project and writing the report on it. It was fun, engaging, and even as I read it now, well written.
I also remember how to get the area and circumference of a circle, how order of operations works, and how to divide and multiply fractions. But even after working as an IT recruiter for five years I can’t reliably spell consultent consultant or recieve receive. You remember what you use. Or something like that.
I think that the groundwork for some kids has already been built that when you discover length times height equals area it fits in and they move on. There are some that can’t even remember what area refers to. Education is doing great things for the first group, but I can’t help feeling that no number of repetitions will ever get it to click with some other students until some different framework has been established. How to we reach back to build that framework for the kids that need it, and where did it even come from with those that have it?