Sunday, February 26, 2012

Technology in Education Reviews

One of the tasks assigned to me in the Educational Technology course I am currently enrolled in is evaluating a number of WebQuests.  These are structured learning experiences that wrap Internet resources inside a scaffolded lesson.  The scaffolding provides guidance for students to learn how to utilize the staggering potentialities of the Internet in their own education.  Its an interesting concept.

Intro to Pascal Programming
The first WebQuest I chose was Introduction to Pascal Programming - mostly because it is a subject well within my comfort zone, so I felt I would be able to evaluate it with little trouble.  Also, I was interested to see how Pascal would be used in a current environment - Pascal has largely been overshadowed by newer, more feature-rich languages, and to my knowledge is currently only used in legacy systems.  Finally, Pascal is the language used in “Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs,” a book by Niklaus Wirth recommended to me by one of my mentors, which I have been reading and may well be the most concise and clear explanation of the foundational material of Computing Science I have ever encountered.

I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanness of the WebQuest design - up to this point all the WebQuests I had encountered were truly obnoxious in their color and graphics.  In contrast, this was a very clean and simple design.  The sections were still somewhat disjointed - we are introduced to the task-at-hand with a fictional bus exchange that has little bearing on the task (learning some basic Pascal Programming), and is never mentioned again.  But once you moved beyond the introductory flavor text, the tasks were laid out in a clear fashion, and a good set of resources (one tutorial video, a link to Pascal documentation, and a downloadable Pascal programming environment) is provided.  While the resource list is minimal, it covers all the needed parts, and for students in the target grade level (9-12) I would expect them to be able to move beyond the scaffolding if needed.  

One of the goals of a WebQuest is to encourage higher-order thinking.  This WebQuest attempts to do so through two different means - first, the students are challenged to define what programming is, provide some explanation on the differences between a compiler and interpreter, and most importantly, explain why they should learn Pascal even though it is a “dead” language.  I was fascinated by this tactic, as it takes the most common student criticism about studying less-popular programming languages, and poses the question to them.  It seems like a wonderful strategy for prompting critical thinking - and because the explanation is one the student must generate, it will likely carry far more weight with a student than one supplied by the teacher.



The one video resource from Intro to Pascal Programming 

The second means employed by the WebQuest is to write four programs using Pascal.  Each program builds upon the techniques needed for the previous one, and they scale in difficulty nicely.  Pascal itself is an excellent choice for introducing programming - it has a clear, concise syntax strongly tied to mathematics, is written in a very linear fashion, and is not encumbered by object-oriented paradigms.  This is important when we consider the task of learning programming from a cognitive load theory standpoint - students are already familiar with step-by-step instructions and mathematical concepts, so their learning can focus on the task of programming.  Object-oriented languages, in contrast, require students to not only learn programming syntax, but throw in object structure and control flow patterns.  Too often I have seen students overwhelmed by the many different ideas they have to process while trying to tackle Java or C#.

The evaluation rubric was reasonable and provided solid guidelines to an instructor.  All in all, this was an excellent WebQuest, and one I may end up using with my Introduction to Computing Science class as a one-off activity to introduce the early-generation general purpose programming languages.  The only real weakness I see is that a teacher would need to spend some time programming with Pascal before using the WebQuest in order to be ready to assist students, which was not indicated on the Teacher Page.  I would give it a 4.5 on a 5-point scale.



Promethean 101 Class
The next WebQuest I looked at (which I picked mostly because I wasn’t sure what “Promethean” was referring to), was this one - Promethean 101 Class.  It turns out the “Promethean” doesn’t have much to do with the mythological figure Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to man, or the “modern day” Prometheus (Victor Frankenstein), but rather is a brand of smartboard.  This was fine by me, as I am rather interested in seeing how this technology is being used in schools.  I was a bit curious how such a WebQuest would be addressed at a 9-12 grade audience, but it quickly became clear that the audience is supposed to be teachers.

Visually, the WebQuest was well designed, had a good blend of colors, appropriate graphics, and looked very slick and professional.  It had a few more sections than most of the other WebQuests I had previously seen, but they were clearly there for providing additional structure and breaking up what would have been a rather large task section.  The resources were appropriate to the task at hand, which was learning how to use a SmartBoard, and were broken up and carefully arranged to not be overwhelming to a non-techie.

But that’s where the good part ends.  The entire WebQuest consists of nothing more than a user manual and advertising videos.  It shows you how to hook up the board, how use the software to write, draw, display PowerPoints, etc. But nothing beyond that - there is no pedagogy at all!  No attempt to suggest how the smartboard can be used as more than a slightly easier-to-make-pretty chalkboard with a projector thrown in.  The few “sample” lesson plans were frankly sad efforts, and used PowerPoint in ways that make me cringe... I was hoping for novel uses based on sound pedagogy, but instead we are presented with what amounts to an expensive toy rather than a tool to transform the educational experience.

This is especially frustrating because it could be a tool for transformational education.  But for it to be effectively utilized in such a fashion, those strategies need to be widely disseminated, and built upon.   That is what the 21st century classroom is about - not acquiring fancy technology, but utilizing whatever technology is available in new and out-of-the-box kinds of ways.  So ultimately, this WebQuest serves as a good introduction to a piece of hardware, but hardly an inspiring experience.  I would give it a 2.3 on a 5 point scale.




Computers and the Internet
For my last WebQuest, I choose Computers & The Internet, as this is one of the major topics I teach in my Introduction to Computing Science course, and was curious how it could be covered in a single WebQuest, which up to this point I had considered to be a short (30 minute to 2 hour) activity.  Turns out this WebQuest was intended to cover eight days.  It actually divides the topic into numerous subtopics (computing history, computer architecture, computer processing, computer networking, and the Internet).  Each subtopic is to be researched and presented on to the class (or other audience).  This approach seems highly appropriate for the grade range it targets (9-12 grade), as these are foundational skills the students will need when they reach college.

A very thorough student-produced video on the History of Computing

The supplied resources were surprisingly good.  The video on computing history, for example, covered a lot of ground, discussing everything from Charles Babbage’s mechanical computers to the modern PC, and even hit a few steps I leave out of my lectures.  The material on the Internet was not quite as strong, but at least was accurate.  One of the resources explained packet switching through an analogy of dropping jellybeans through pipes between students - not a bad metaphor.  But packet switching especially can benefit from a visual explanation, and I was disappointed that none of the excellent packet switching videos I’ve seen on the web were included.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the teacher section actually had resources explaining what a WebQuest was and how to utilize it within the classroom.  After encountering so many WebQuests that were clearly tailored to a specific teacher’s needs, it was a breath of fresh air to see one that tried to be usable by anyone.  All in all, this was an excellent WebQuest, covering a lot of ground.  The only criticism I might offer was the sheer amount of information covered.  It might have been better to split the WebQuest into multiple WebQuests; but the structure that was used did a good job of splitting the material as it was.  I would give it a 4.8 on a 1-5 range.



Squishy Circuits
We were also to evaluate a video, for which I choose AnnMarie Thomas’ Hands-on Science with Squishy Circuits Ted talk.  In the video, she presents a novel use for homemade play-dough, creating kid-friendly circuits using salt- and sugar-based recipes.  As salt-based dough conducts electricity, and sugar-based dough resists it, many semiconductor-type elements can be formed through the combinations of the two, and the legs of LED lights, motors, and other electronics can be “plugged in” to the dough.  This is a great alternative to classic breadboards, and has great potential for teaching circuit theory in a very hands-on manner.  




AnnMarie Thomas' Ted Talk on Squishy Circuits

Her video led me to the excellent website she has created with her collaborators, Squishy Circuits.  The site sports a huge host of videos on creating various kinds of electronic devices, including animated dough animals, a speaker that changes tone based on how you squish the dough, and even a dough battery.  This is an incredible way to introduce circuits to any age group, and can help build interest in STEM subjects.  I cannot stress how awesome this idea is, and give the site a 6 on a 5 point scale.

References

Donaldson, David. "Intro to Pascal Programming."Zunal.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 26 Feb 2012. <http://www.zunal.com/webquest.php?w=135635>.


Emannuel, Glen. "Computers & The Internet." Zunal.com. N.p., 2011. Web. 26 Feb 2012. <http://www.zunal.com/webquest.php?w=120108>.


Kuchta, Kathie. "Promethean 101 Class." Zunal.com. N.p., 2012. Web. 26 Feb 2012. <http://www.zunal.com/webquest.php?w=133654 >.


Thomas, AnnMarie. Squishy Circuits. University of St. Thomas, n.d. Web. 26 Feb 2012.
<http://courseweb.stthomas.edu/apthomas/SquishyCircuits/index.htm>

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Refactoring"

It took me a long time to settle on a title for this blog - naming things has always been a particular challenge for me.  But I'm happy with my current title, and it embodies an approach that could be quite successful at achieving our goals for the educational system.  But what is that, you may ask?

Refactoring is a term for an increasingly common practice in programming.  It involves revisiting already written software code and incrementally rewriting it in a cleaner, more readable fashion, applying good programming and documenting processes along the way.  The point of refactoring isn't to add new functionality to the software - it's simply intended to make the code more readable and understandable so that any future additions and maintenance will be easier to do.

Any programmer who has worked with a large project can attest to how, as a code base grows, it gradually becomes less and less readable and increasingly complex.  There are a number of reasons for this - the rush to get a part of the program functional for a deadline, new features added to the design that hadn't been a part of the original specification, and even a realignment of the design when it becomes clear that the customer's need is actually different than was first expected.  Further, different programmers tend to each have their own "style" of writing code which may vary greatly from programmer to programmer, and most software projects are developed by teams of programmers working together.

The Education Reform movement is in a similar situation - we have a plethora of new approaches and strategies for better educating our students that have been developed by reformers across the nation.  But it isn't yet clear how to bring those various strategies together.  Each has been developed by a different group, and uses different approaches.  Even the terminology isn't held in common.  And most importantly, a common direction for institutionalizing these techniques so that they can be readily adopted by non-experimental schools has yet to be made clear.  

That's where refactoring comes in - we need to start taking these reform strategies that have already been developed, and proven effective, and repackage them in a way that can readily be adopted by your average public school while minimizing the chaos that such a change would cause.  And do so within the budget and reporting constrains that our schools currently face.  This task will be the focus of my research as I work towards a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and the primary focus of this blog in the years to come.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Beginning...

As an undergraduate I once planned on becoming a teacher, and was pursuing a dual major in Computing Science and Education - then I spent time volunteering in a local classroom.  While I enjoyed working with students and loved the interactions, I was shocked by the amount of paperwork that consumed the teachers' time and had little to nothing to do with teaching.  This, along with the lack of support in our state for teaching Computing Science led me to shelve my teaching interests in favor of developing others - in the realms of game development, simulation, augmented and virtual reality.  Yet, I did find myself teaching soon enough, at the undergraduate level.  And now, nearly fifteen years since, I find myself coming full-circle, making the decision to pursue an Education Ph.D.

In many ways, this decision has its genesis in Neil Stephenson's excellent novel "The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer." Set in a not-too-distant future, the book centers around the childhood of a vagabond girl Nell, and a sophisticated teaching AI housed within a "magical book" that helps her develop skills to survive in her challenging world.  This wonderful device caused me to re-evaluate my understanding of how teaching could be done, and how the powerful tools I had learned in Computing Science could lend themselves to transforming the way our schools work - eliminating much of that paperwork load, providing more accurate and useful assessments, and giving far better support to our teachers, freeing them to focus on what we've trained and asked them to do - to teach.

It turns out I have not been the only one playing with these ideas - my good friend Tanner pointed me to a school in New York that has been exploring some of the same concepts that have been flitting around in my head for the past five years.  Just watch this short video they have produced:


It's incredible to see what is being accomplished here - we see some of the most powerful tools of Computing Science enabling a new form of education: collecting and mining vast amounts of data about individual students, and using that data to build personalized education plans to ensure that every student reaches their full potential.  It is supplying this guidance back to the teachers, giving them a more in-depth understanding of their students' strengths and weaknesses are than they have ever had before.  It manages the daily schedules of every student and teacher, dynamically scheduling lessons - pairing students, teachers, lessons, and resources based on the student's level of adeptness, ensuring that children never fail to master a necessary skill before embarking on further lessons that depend on that skill.  It's incorporating multiple modalities, selecting the ones that best match an individual student's learning style and needs.

It's a paradigm shift, and one that our nation has been hungering for.  But there's still plenty of work that needs to be done, and it's my intention to add my own humble efforts to this great enterprise.