The App Mentality


Yesterday, I made reference to a quote that Brian Aspinall had shared about coding:

Why did it take so long to become “trendy” today?

I needed more space to share some thoughts about that so this is it.

I’m really not sure that I like the term “trendy” though.  There have always been proponents of coding and having students work with computers. While we weren’t successful in Ontario convincing the curriculum powers that be to include it as a discipline, we were able to get products like Hyperstudio, Frames, and Turing provincially licensed.

I spend an entire teaching career being involved with this and was fortunate to be able to have a full timetable of teaching computer science and data processing.  As I reflect back on the most satisfying moments, they occurred when the lights went on and students were able to make this “box” solve a problem or otherwise do something successfully for them.

This past week, a number of us were involved in a Twitter chat session surrounding coding in the elementary classroom.  It was wonderful to see so many individuals involved but there still was something that bothered me and I think it boils down to the trendy deal.  I like to call it the “App Mentality” that seems to be so pervasive with so many.

Do any web research on a topic, and it won’t take long until you find a post that demonstrates this perfectly.  In the best sense of click bait, the title reads something  like:

“58 apps to do the same thing and why you need to use them all”

It throws up red flags for me when I read statements like “Oh, I teach coding.  We learn this language, then this language, then this language and then learn this language.  It’s just like Seymour Papert said.”  Huh?  Have you even read “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas”?  Was the powerful idea that a student would write a piece of code in this language and then write it again in this other language and so on and so on?

I hardly think so.

Ontario’s Computer Studies Curriculum is the envy of jurisdictions everywhere.  In one document, it describes a series of courses devoted to the study of Computer Studies, including Computer Science.  The key, and the power, lies in the fact that the courses are described in terms of student expectations.  It doesn’t state that this particular language is used in Grade 11 and then this language is used in Grade 12.  It honours the teaching profession by allowing for the choice of language by educators and most suitable for the course.  It stands the test of time as languages and approaches change.

Sadly, coding in the elementary school hasn’t been covered and so good folks are doing it alone with whatever skillset they have.

I recall one professional development day when I organized a day at the Computer Science Faculty at the University of Windsor.  We were coming to grips with the end of life for procedural languages like BASIC and Pascal and were trying to set a future direction.  We were seeking an object-oriented solution and the languages we were considering included C, Java, Turing, and probably a few others.  One of the teachers asked the Faculty Dean the important question – “Since our students who are interested in pursuing Computer Science will be going to your Faculty, what language do you want them to know?”  It seemed like the perfect question.

The answer took many by surprise.

“We don’t care.  All we want are students that have computational thinking skills and can solve problems.”

For us, going forward, that was always the guiding principle.  And, when you step back from your passion, shouldn’t that be the perfect answer?  Many school districts are in love with the Grades 7-12 model for a school.  Why not have this conversation with your school’s computer studies teacher?  She/He has a vested interest in attracting those who wish to take control of a computer for their own use.  What attitudes, skills, and knowledge are they looking for?

I’d be willing to bet that they don’t want a “wide but not very deep” knowledge.

So, back to the apps.  We live in a time and age where there are absolutely the best tools available for use right now.  You’ve seen the posts; you might even have read some of what I’ve experienced personally on this blog.  You, as the professional, need to take a look at the tools and decide what’s appropriate.  Short of a provincial or district curriculum, you’ll need to ask “What is it that I want students to be able to do with code?”.   Choose the tool, stick with it, and scaffold the coding experience with more challenging problems.

Throwing another app into the mix because it’s “trendy” doesn’t add much.  In fact, it may be intimidating to the person just getting started with the concept of coding in their own classroom.

Want to learn more professionally?  Monitor this website for the 2015 CSTA Conference.  There’s a whole strand devoted to coding in K-8.

Binary Numbers


Thanks to Alfred Thompson for the lead on this incredibly addictive game.  In his regular Monday morning post “Interesting Links“, he made reference to a Binary Numbers Game from Cisco.

It’s fun; it’s a challenge; and it really makes you understand your binary numbers.

I’ll confess to playing with it for far too long.  In fact, it was only after playing for an extended period of time that I realized that the music loop is really annoying.  (Sorry developers)  I can’t imagine a classroom full of computers doing this activity without headphones!

The Ontario Curriculum is loaded with all kinds of references to Binary Numbers.  This activity would be a welcome addition to any classroom where the topic is being addressed.

p.s. I really should have done a screen capture with my higher scores but I was focused on climbing levels….

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling – Programming


One of the huge initiatives that you see so many school districts involved with is the implementation of tablet technology.  When you discuss this, the over achievers will indicate that the tablet is not just a consumption device; it’s a creation device.  When you peel back the outside and truly look inside, most of the implementation is anything but.

There’s still a lot of reading and math games happening.  You do have to start somewhere and I’m sure that the use will become more sophisticated with time.  It’s just that such low level activities are so easy to find and over populate the various stores that are available.

Recently, I had a discussion with a number of people who were always doing innovating things with kids – one being robotics.  Because of their district initiative, their traditional computers were replaced with tablets and that killed the robotic fun.  Robotics is such a great activity.  The ability to build and program your own robot can be so motivating.  To be able to create a set of instructions and then have the robot perform them is so engaging.  Just don’t mention that the process is programming!

So, what to do?

I’d suggest a long look at Sphero.

Sphero is a robotic ball.  Inside are the mechanics for motion, acceleration, direction change, colour, …  Most importantly, it connects to a computing device via Bluetooth.  All of a sudden, those new tablets have a robot to control and program.

With a very futuristic interface, you control your robot.  Mine’s called “Doug On A Roll”.

Right out of the box, Sphero is OK.  It does all kinds of things.  But, in the best sense of gamification, it gets better.  By completing challenges, you unlock additional Sphero’s additional abilities.

The challenges are fun and the fact that Sphero does more with your successes just keeps you wanting to attempt challenge after challenge.

Every time I head over to my app store, I see new applications written to exploit the functionality of Sphero. 

But there was one app that put me over the top.  It was orbBasic.

With the scripting capabilities, you can write your own code and have Sphero follow your instructions.

If you’re lamenting the loss of your traditional robotics or you’re looking for some way to incorporate programming into your classroom, you owe it to yourself to take a look at Sphero.  Sphero has a pal – the pal’s name is Ollie.  I haven’t had hands-on with it just yet.

“Death By Delay”


From the Bring IT, Together Conference and Ron Canuel’s presentation, this quote stood out for me.

“Death By Delay”

The context was about computer related pilot projects – put off the ultimate decision by running pilots.  Ron doesn’t speak in isolation or hypotheticals.  His work with the Eastern Township School Board is legendary.  Decision makers have visited his schools to see it in action.  Decision makers talk about the success there.  Read this article about the impact that his work has had on the current Hamilton initiative.  The use of the technology has shown an improvement in test scores, if that’s important.

And yet, we still see pilot projects all over the place.

The reasons are generally the same:

  • we need to test for sustainability;
  • we need to ensure that we have the capacity to do this;
  • we need to make sure that our teachers are trained;
  • we need to write a policy;
  • we need to make sure this is the right solution.

All of these are just excuses to avoid doing the right thing.

Sustainability
Do your homework before you start.  You’ve been buying computer and related technologies for years.  In these days of big data, don’t you have enough research already to make that decision?  Why not ask those who are already doing it?

Capacity
Things changes on a yearly basis.  What will determine if you ever actually have that capacity?

Teachers
I’ve said this many times.  You train dogs, not teachers.  If professional learning is a condition for a pilot project, you’re not currently implementing things properly.  A continuing online professional learning program, coupled with excellent educational leaders in your schools and you should be able to take on nearly anything.  Know your schools and don’t underestimate teachers doing the right thing.

Policy
I had a great conversation with a friend at Bring IT, Together.  His parting gift to his superintendent was to add one clause to the complete list of district policies.  “When in doubt, use common sense.”

Right Solution
Could you imagine a Microsoft PC school that was holding off waiting for the perfect/right solution?  We wouldn’t have purchased computers running MS-DOS 3.2, or Windows 3.1, or Windows 95, or Windows XP, or Windows 7, or Windows 8, or …  Every year you put off a decision is a year’s worth of learning and understanding by students lost.  Oh, and the hardware or software for your “pilot” may well have changed as you put off the decision.  What then?  Run another pilot?

I think Ron nailed it with his comment.  The excuses are just that – a failure to pull the trigger.  You should have all the information about your system at your fingertips.  You should have a staff ready to take on the world and do the very best for their students.  Do your homework and know the solution and what it’s going to require.  I would argue that it continues to get easier with many solutions being web based.  Monitor your bandwidth and buy more if needed.

Could you imagine a company like Coca-Cola doing market research the way we do pilot programs?

What are you waiting for?

Classic Games


Over the weekend, I had a discussion about computer gaming.  I was in the neighbourhood of id Software and Gearbox Software.  In my discussion with Henry, we were talking about student fascination with gaming and all the latest things that engage them.  Showing my age, I was more focussed on the classics from id like Doom.  Good times were had with that software and running it over a LAN was so cutting edge at the time.

In fact, computer gaming has always seemed to be ahead of the curve with respect to software development as programmers try their best to push and get the most performance from the box on which it played.  In my way of thinking, virtual reality has always been very nicely represented in the gaming of the time.

It is sad, at times, that the old games eventually go away and are replaced with newer ones.

But, if you yearn for the oldie goldies, you can have at them at the Internet Archive.

Check out the categories.  Check out the huge collection of what’s available.

If you want to get back to the life of wearing out the arrow keys on your computer keyboard, this is the place to be!

 

Should Have Done This Years Ago


Years ago, maybe five?, I had a Lenovo laptop with a whopping 2 MB of memory.  At the time, I wanted to try out Ubuntu in a dual boot situation.  I already had purchased the Dell Netbook that came with Ubuntu and I really liked it.  So, off I went to the Ubuntu website and downloaded Ubuntu and made the machine dual boot.  One side was Windows XP and the other side was Ubuntu.

Of course, I had to download the 32 bit version of Ubuntu with the limited memory that I had in place.  The computer was OK on the Windows side but just screamed on the Ubuntu side.  It was just so fast; it was hard to believe that it was the same computer.

When that laptop died, I indulged myself with this computer.  It has an i7 processor and 4GB of RAM.  Windows 7 was OK but like most Windows installations slowed over time no matter how many times I tweaked it.  I’m sure that it’s self-inflicted.  So, I decided to make the computer dual boot to Ubuntu.  Now, when you have the slow internet that I do, you really have to pick and choose your downloads wisely.  I could go somewhere and download on their high speed – but I still had the Ubuntu DVD from my previous installation.  I was just going to test for proof of concept anyway – so I installed it and started to use it.  Darned if it didn’t make this computer fly.

I kept using it, and when updates came along, I would just apply the updates.  I was totally happy.  The last update was 14.04LTS and I was very, very happy with it.

Until I tried to install the Opera Browser.

Oh yeah.  That other decision has come back to byte me.

Opera only comes in a 64 bit version so I couldn’t install it.  I went online seeking advice and there was no natural path from the 32 bit version to the 64 bit version.  It calls for brute force installation from scratch.  Just backup your Home Directory after revealing hidden files so that you can resume Ubuntu life.

I looked at my face mirrored in the monitor.  You dummy.

Right out of the box, Windows 7 was running 64 bit.  That was only half a hard disk away.

The timing was right.  Ubuntu, which updates itself every six months, has just released version 14.10.  Why not?

So, I started the download and went to take the dog for a long walk.  There’s no sense in sitting at the keyboard watching the download process inch along.

Sure enough, when we returned, there was a disk image sitting on my desktop.  I just need to burn it to DVD, reboot from the DVD and then install.  Wait!  Do I have any DVDs?  It’s been so long since I’d burned one.  Fortunately, having a son in the television editing business means that there’s never a shortage of video stuff.  I walked down the hall and got a blank.  Of course, I needed to dig into the ol’ brain cells to remember how to burn a DVD…done!

I rebooted and was so impressed with the installation screen.

I could:

  • Run Ubuntu from the DVD (nah, I’m here for the duration);
  • Erase the entire hard drive and install Ubuntu 14.10 (goodbye Windows);
  • Erase the petition and install Ubuntu 14.10 (yes, but that would remove everything and I’m not that radical);
  • Do something else; (I was totally intrigued by this but passed…)
  • or, the preferred solution – you have Windows 7 and Ubuntu 14.04LTS installed – upgrade Ubuntu to 14.10.  Yes!

Half an hour later, I’m done.  During the process, I noticed that Ubuntu had archived certain things and then restored them.  On first boot, I hit Firefox to see that my theme (Puny Weakling) and all of my extensions save.  It was just a matter of copying my Home Directory and I was back, good to go.

I had bookmarked a couple of upgrade advice resources:

Some I had planned on doing anyway, some were new and some were ignored.  After all, Ubuntu is all about open ideas and concepts – even in its installation.

I installed Ubuntu Tweak and messed about.  I think we all have an idea of what our computer should look and act like.

And, I’m back in business.  No stopping me from trying out Opera on Ubuntu now!

If this works out well, maybe I’ll buy more RAM.

I’m never completely computer happy.

Time, Visualized


One of the things about being connected to educators online that might be frustrating occurs when they’re not necessarily in your time zone.  I sent you a message – why haven’t you responded?

It might be that you’re boring or it may well be that it’s very late where they are and they’ve just gone to bed!  There are definitely conversion web sites to help you out with that or just ask Google.

Heck, with Google suggestions, you don’t even need to finish your question before you have your answer.  

What if you want it all?  What if you want it visualized?  Then you need to head to the Earth Time Clock.

Staring down from space, at the moment, see our beautiful planet and just where the sun is shining.

On the right side of the screen, you’ll be able to see the current times from locations around the planet.

The resource also features a simulation so that you can see the sun rise and sun set for a particular location.  Don’t forget to click on the moon status as well!

Take a few moments to play with this simulation.  I’ll bet that you get all kinds of ideas for how you could use it in your classroom to address curriculum expectations.  If you like simulations, I’m sure you’ll be fascinated by it.