Category Archives: Teaching

Where in the World?

I love geography guessing / discovery applications.  My latest fascination is GeoGuessr.  

It’s humbling.  It reaffirms how little I know!

Like many in this genre, you’re given a map image and your job is to identify the location.  What could be easier?

Well, I never said I was good…

Although sometimes I do have a clue!

“The World” is a big place and makes for really tough puzzles.  When you scroll down, there are some localized puzzles to solve.  I had a great deal of fun with the “Famous Places” section.

About Programming Languages

The closing keynote speaker at the CSTA Conference was Michael Kölling who shared with us some of his thoughts about where CS Education was headed. "What’s Next for CS Education: Thoughts on Topics, Tools, and All the Rest". You should know Michael from Greenfoot and BlueJ.  His talk was very engaging and one of his visions has really stuck with me.

I wish that his presentation was online because it wouldn’t do justice if I tried to recreate a chart that he drew about programming languages. 

Basically, on an X-Y grid he mapped out our current selection of programming languages.  He distinguished between “block” languages like Scratch and “text” languages like Java.  One of the differences, of course, is in the environment.  In his presentation, he argued that we need a new language that fits somewhere in between and demonstrated what it might look like in an ongoing project.

My first reaction was – great – something new that I would have to learn.  But I stuck through with his argument and could see where he was headed. 

If you’ve ever debugged and looked for that elusive semi-colon, you might jump right on board.

On the other hand, if you’ve looked up and down for the proper graphical structure, you might jump on board as well.

Stepping back, it is important to consider the student.  For a long time now, we’ve seen success in making a student’s first programming language graphical in nature.  It’s more of a “work on the algorithm” than “learn the language” approach.  Ultimately, the assumption is that not all block programmers will become great text coding professionals.  The goal is to teach an appreciation for problem solving by computer.  And yet, there will be those who want to study everything.

You can’t help but think about the gap.  The interested student will ultimately reach the end of the line for programming in a block language and will need to dive into the deep end full of semi-colons.  There really is no transition.

Could a new language, filled with the best of both worlds, be the answer?

Hunting for Code

At the CSTA Conference, Alfred Thompson sent this Twitter message.

Later, he blogged about his thoughts……My Big Learning at CSTA 2014 Day 1–Not From A Session

Based on his first quote, I headed over to the Code Hunt site and started poking around.  It’s very intriguing.  If you follow the link and end up at the CSTA contest, you’ll find that it’s closed.  If that’s the case, click on “Change Zone” and navigate away.




You have your choice to play in Java or C#. 

The game boils down to this…you’re given a section of code and output table. 



“All” you have to do is look at the code that you’re given and modify it so that the expected result is the same as your result (based upon modifying the code).

It was great fun.  You log in with a Microsoft or Yahoo! ID so that your attempts are captured.  It’s addictive.  I dropped by their booth, talked with the Microsoft folks and got a first hand demo.  In addition to the puzzles that they present (and there are lots of them), teachers can create their own for their class.

How’d I do?  Well, quite frankly, I wasn’t eligible since the instructions indicated that you had to be from one of the 50 states so that put a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm at the moment.  There were a lot of really sharp people at the conference so I wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway had I been eligible.

Regardless, if you’re a Computer Science teacher or a programmer in a bit of a challenge for yourself or friends, make sure you check it out.

What a Great Idea

As part of the Computer Science Teachers Association conference, we all piled into buses and headed to the Universal Technical Institute for a tour and reception.  What a facility – we were amazed at the facility and, importantly, the claims of graduation rates for its students.

The comment was made a number of times that so much repairs to today’s cars are computer related and that’s why it was so important that our group of educators knew of this as another pathway for students.

Forget computer labs – how about a car lab?

Dress code and deportment is important at UTI and part of their student assessment.  Dress required proper hair cuts, wearing a UTI shirt or T-Shirt, heavy pants, work shoes, etc.  From a safety perspective, the descriptors absolutely made sense.  We were encouraged to take pictures and Peter Beens has been creating a gallery of the entire conference here.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures but there was one recurring thing that caught my eye as just genius.  I snapped a quick picture.

Full length mirrors were placed throughout the building under the question “Would you hire this person?”

The first time I saw one, I thought “neat”.

But, as I kept running into them at location after location, it really made sense.  It sends a constant message about how you carry and present yourself.  In order to achieve the highest graduation rates, you need graduates that present themselves ready to take on the world.  There were no instructions or suggestions.  It was just a constant reminder.  As a passerby, you take it or leave it.  Your call.

So, I wondered — why don’t we do that in all our schools as a constant reminder?

Three To Try

“Summer’s here and the time is right for’…

…trying out new software.

Whether you’re taking an AQ courrse or just looking for new software or ideas for the fall, you owe it to yourself to take a look at these three great Ontario developed resources.  All have been used here and I can see absolutely great uses for them.

Cube for Teachers

Cube for K-12 Teachers is a repository for teachers that went live in Beta the first of October.  While the opening screen indicates that the resource will ultimately be available to all Canadian teachers, at present registration is limited to Ontario teachers.”

Originally reviewed on this blog here.


“Brian Aspinall’s latest production is called nkwiry.  nkwiry is a very classroom friendly social bookmark curating service.  There are many similar services on the web but they do require some involved account creation and then a bit of work (read explaining grown up sevices to students and the frustration therein) to get started before you can enjoy some success.”

Originally reviewed on this blog here.


“From the fertile mind of Brian Aspinall, comes a collaborative word processor option for those that don’t need the high-end, high-powered options.  He’s called it Scrawlar.  Think of it as a word processor with just the right number of tools.”

Originally reviewed on this blog here


You Have About Five Seconds…

…to impress me.

I like to learn things.  Daily.

There’s a world of people connected, particularly on Twitter, to learn with.  It’s just a matter of connecting with them.  Unlike the thought in some corners, I don’t spend my entire day online.

But I like to use the time that I do spend online productively.  I value those who take the time to learn and share; share and learn.  I like the interactions.  I like the fact that Twitter will suggest people that I might want to learn with.  I also like the fact that I get notifications when someone new follows me.  For me, that’s all raw data just waiting to be analyzed.  That’s where the five seconds come in.

Now, I have been on interview teams and I’ve been interviewed for jobs many times myself.  I know the importance of making a first impression.  Why wouldn’t it apply here?

Here’s how I gauge that first impression in this media.

When I find a “person of potential interest”, I’ll nip over to their home page and check them out.

This is what I look for when I’m there…

  • Do they have a profile picture that would lead me to believe that they’re serious about this;
  • Have they posted anything recently?;
  • Is what they’re posting/sharing recently consistent with what I want to learn?;
  • Is what they’re posting/sharing recently totally inconsistent with what I want to learn but now I’m intrigued?;
  • Do they have an up-to-date blog?;
  • Are they an Ontario Educator?;
  • Do they look spammy?;

A quick Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, No passes the test.  They’re worthy of following.

Where do they go?  Once I found the joys of a multi-column Twitter browser, I was convinced.  Not everyone needs to go into the big mixing pot of followers.  I can make my life a whole lot easier by creating lists.

I recognize that this is hardly scientific.  But I don’t have the time for an hour-long formal interview!

Notice that I don’t care if they have hundreds and hundreds of posts.  Everyone has to start somewhere.

How do YOU determine whether or not to follow someone?

The Price of Literacy

I was doing some writing yesterday and just wanted to confirm the appropriate use of a particular piece of punctuation.  It was about the use of an Ellipsis … so I used the Guide to Grammar and Writing to get the job done.

The process was pretty easy.  I just opened another tab, went to my bookmark, found what I needed, and then went back to my writing.

My mind wandered, as it often does, and I thought that this would be a great reference application.  I could be a split-second more productive if I could do my writing on the computer and reference things on the iPad and be oh, so much better.

I immediately dropped my work and headed to the App Store and searched for “punctuation”.

There were lots of results.  But the reference materials came at a price.


The good news is that there was a game to teach punctuation that was free, but it does offer in-app purchases.  We’ve become accustomed to that.  I still was quite surprised that there was no free product available.

How about Android?


Does this make Android users more literate than Apple users?  Or, do Android users just need more help?

It was just an interesting observation.  Thankfully, we have our priorities right.  Games are free; educational reference not.  Such is the price of literacy.  

So, folks, pay attention to your English teachers.  Otherwise, it will cost you…


If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

…chances are it’s a duck and spends its life running from hunters.

We could extrapolate this – if your school library looks like a 19th century library and runs like a 19th century library, chances are it’s a 19th century library and is running for its life to stay open.

One of my friends used to upset teacher-librarians by asking what they did.  He’d do the cha-ching, cha-ching sound affect and go through the actions of checking books in and out.  Actually, “upset” is probably a politically correct way to describe their reaction.  I’m sure you can think of the word that would be more appropriate.  I try not to use words like that on this blog.

I think we’ve all seen the media.  In an educational world trying to save a buck or two, school libraries are being closed and the books therein sent to individual classrooms.  And, I suppose if that’s all that was happening in the library, it’s probably a good move.  Today’s libraries should be much, much more.

Carol Koechlin sent me a link to a document from the Canadian Library Association titled “Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada 2014“.  My first reaction was “Oh, good…another advocacy document”.  However, my reaction changed as I started to read and unpack.  It really is much more than that.  It’s a guide to describe what a School Library Learning Commons should look like, and run like.

From Carol, “A Learning Commons is a vibrant, whole-school approach, presenting exciting opportunities for collaboration among teachers, teacher-librarians and students. Within a Learning Commons, new relationships are formed between learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they learn new ways to learn.”  Read more at

I kept getting impressed as I worked my way through the document.  After all, the notion of a Learning Commons has been around for a while and is poorly implemented in many quarters.  Putting a bank of computers in a library doesn’t immediately transform it.  That simply puts electronics in place.  I would argue that it’s more than that and goes not only to the acquisition of the electronic but also into the staffing.  It should be staffed first, with the best qualified and interested person.  After all, to succeed, the best Teacher Librarian needs to know all of the curriculum at all of the grade levels.  The best Teacher Librarian needs to know age appropriate literacy and research strategies.  The best Teacher Librarian knows all about differentiation and strategies for success.

Back to the document.   The concept of a Learning Commons is not new.  Hopefully, the document will be shared with everyone else in the school.  In fact, I think it’s important enough to devote an entire Professional Learning session around it.  Not only will it change the conception of what the school library is, there should be lights going on throughout the staff as to how best to use this resource.  As in most cases, the administration of the school needs to see the huge potential that a true Learning Commons has and how it supports learning everywhere.

For example, the document lays out the rationale for an investment in money, time, and resources by identifying seven foci.

Focus on:

  • Learning
  • Learner
  • Pathways
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Opportunity

The purposes and standards are laid out in this recurring graphic along with in-depth discussion of each.

I liked, in particular, the levels of indication of success for each of the standards.

I had the chance to reflect on my own personal use of the library as a computer science teacher.  I’ve mentioned more than once that the computer science teacher is often the loneliest person in a school.  I was so fortunate to have a teacher-librarian who I could learn with and who was forever filling my mailbox with ideas for classes, research, and just general ideas about pushing students.

When I think of the best of the teacher-librarians I worked with as a consultant, they were forever doing that for the entire school.  Stirring the intellectual pot, if you will.

The document does include a planning guide that all teacher-librarians would be wise to use or adapt for their own use.  There are so many considerations about the physical plant.  But, it doesn’t stop there.  Ideas about a virtual learning comments are included as well.  I know that I had success working with colleagues using wikis to develop a launchpad for the virtual.  If you’re not ready to operate at that level, there’s even a template to get you started.  Make it your own and customize or use it as a checklist to make sure that your virtual world is up to speed.  In particular, I really like the concept of a tab devoted to Experimental Learning.  Who could deny that you’re working on the cutting edge with that consideration?

This is a fabulous document.  It’s not a quick read since the potential role of a successful School Learning Commons facilitating change in learning is gigantic.  The document truly does do the role of the teacher-librarian justice.  It’s something that all teacher-librarians need to wrap their heads around – select the do-ables and develop a timeline for implementation.  Once that’s done, your purpose needs to be shouted loudly to admin and staff to take advantage of all that you’re offering.

When Technology Fails

On Friday, I think it was, I read this article in the New Yorker.  “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom

It was one of those articles that I wanted to tuck away and bring out for discussion at the appropriate time.  If you know me, you know my work flow.  I send it to Twitter where it gets identified by and sent to my Diigo account.  Then, it goes to Facebook and reappears as an overnight blog post.  Good grief, I can be noisy.

A number of folks that follow me saw the message on Twitter and jumped on it. Their thoughts and comments increased the value of the article for me.

See?  I do read when you reply…

Linda Aragoni

Lisa Noble

Cliff Kraeker

David Fife

Fred Galang

Andrew Campbell

Jacques Cool

It absolutely is a good read and I hope that anyone teaching Computers in the Classroom takes note.

Unfortunately, I missed a great deal of the discussion but did catch up later on.

The whole thing did bring back a university classroom memory for me.  It was first year and I was taking accounting.  At the time, my university didn’t have a Faculty of Business so this was actually an Economics course.  We took the class in one of those huge classroom theatres where the professor had to use a microphone.  It didn’t really matter because his teaching had nothing about him.

The course was on a slide show basis synchronized with a tape recording of the content.  Picture your worse ever Powerpoint abuse presentation and then start digging.

Every time the audio had a beep, the professor clicked a button and the show went on to the next slide.  It was there that I thought being a university professor would be a pretty good job.  It was only this class though.  But, for the university, I think it was probably a big cash cow in enrolment fees.  There were literally hundreds of us in the theatre and we all had to buy the student companion that went along with the course.  Every time we heard the beep, we turned to the next page…

I actually did very well in the course – not because of the tapes but I had brought prior learning to the classroom having taken all kinds of accounting in high school.

Fortunately, I only ever had one course delivered like that.

Later, as I became a teacher myself, I had forgotten a lot of the courses taken, but I do remember how I felt in that particular class.  Nobody seemed to care whether or not we learned anything and it was anything but interactive.  Had I owned a laptop or cell phone during that class, I would have been one of the students whose minds was a million miles away.

Education is a partnership.  Teachers have to teach and at least set the table so that it’s friendly for learning.  Students have to learn.  We know that.  But, does it happen?

We know that it does in some cases but not in others.

The problem with having this discussion in the Twitter forum is that all of the participants “get it”.  We know that students are more than vessels waiting to be filled up.  Does everyone though?

Bring Your Own Device and/or 1:1 Computing is one of the latest phenomena to hit the classroom.  You know, students get outfitted with whatever their family can afford and they bring it to school to assist in their education or they use school provided technology.  In a perfect world, it connects them to people and resources just as they’re needed.  In a perfect world, the teacher sets the table so that the best of learning is possible – sometimes even including student devices, if appropriate.  The activities work best when they’re interactive and inspire student discussion, creation, and doing things that they’d never done before.

But step back for a second.

How does a teacher get to the point of effectively designing learning experiences like this?

If they have fond memories of sitting in a theatre, focused on a screen, waiting for the beep, all of the technology in the world won’t make a difference.  If it’s not used to support the learning, who owns the problem?

BYOD is a reality now in universities.  It’s just another place in society that’s wireless and supportive of connectivity.  We can’t blame the universities for providing the accessibility.  What can we expect from someone who Facebooked their way through teachers’ college?  And, certainly, even the best classes that support what’s possible at this moment in time can become dated so quickly.

The answer?  David and Cliff know it.  We all had roughly the same jobs at one point in time.  It boils down to a continuing program of professional learning.  There absolutely needs to be learning opportunities about the latest “app” or how to make Excel stand on its head.  That sort of learning should never end.  Embedded with it though needs to be a demonstration about the “how” that reaches out, engages students, and exploits the power of those devices that they have in their hands.  The New Yorker article talks about a wireless kill switch which could be implemented more practically just with a “hands up. lids down” approach.  But that’s just the mechanical part of it.  I’ve seen people blame lack of engagement based upon a particular piece of technology without looking at the actual attempts at learning.

That’s not the point.

What is it about the technology, the teaching, and the subject matter that makes it effective and worth the effort?  That’s where professional learning opportunities lie.  An individual, a school, a district needs to devote time and effort to ensure that teachers understand this.  You can’t just buy a bunch of the latest and greatest and expect the magic to happen.  It’s not the technology per se that is the tipping point.  It’s an amalgam of good teaching practice, an eye to the future and its potential, and the technology.  If your plan doesn’t include a combination of them all, it’s not going to be effective.

And…we’ll continue to read articles like this.

An Interview with Verena Roberts

I’ve recently had interactions with Verena Roberts that culminated in a guest post from her on this blog announcing the CANeLearn Summit to be held in Toronto this summer.  Verena is also going to present at the 2014 Bring IT, Together Conference.  I thought that it might be nice to introduce her to Ontario Educators via an interview.  So, here goes.


Doug:  OK, I’ve got to know.  YOU contacted me first.  How does someone from Alberta find this guy in Ontario?


Verena: I am pretty active on Twitter. I noticed many of the conversations I would watch, from Ontario, often included you. From my perspective I could see people asking you questions and checking for your opinion. So I googled you – I read your blog and thought it was interesting. When the CANeLearn team asked me who I thought we should connect with – I suggested you because you appeared like an online focus for many Ontario educators.


Doug:  Well, OK.  Sometimes a noisy distraction.  So, tell us a little about yourself.  How long have you been in education?  What areas have you taught?


Verena: I started teaching in 1996 at the Canadian International School in Singapore. Then I taught in Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton. I started teaching online with @KOOL (Kamloops Open Online Learning), and have since taught with Alberta Distance Learning Centre and now Palliser BB. I have taught from Kindergarten  through University but my focus area is Social Studies and most recently MOOCs for K12. Over the last two years, I have been consulting and my proudest projects include learning how to integrate MOOCs in K12, the #Gamifi-ED Project and Healthy Healers.

Doug:  You’ve been a busy person with a great deal of global experience.  What is Palliser Beyond Borders?  How many students are enrolled there?

Verena:  Palliser Beyond Borders in a new online school in the Palliser School District in Alberta. It is located between Calgary and Lethbridge. We have just started, so only about 30 students, but we plan on supporting many more in the new school year. Alison Hancox is the Principal, and she is an innovator who thinks outside the box. It is a pretty exciting opportunity to be working with an Innovative Team and District.


Doug:  What is CANeLearn?  How did you get involved?


Verena: In 2012 online and blended leaders from across Canada were invited to the first Summer Summit in Toronto. Many of the leaders had met at iNACOL and they decided to come together to create an Association of K12 Online  and Blended Learning in Canada. I heard about the summit and asked if I could come as a consultant.  I became the acting Chief Innovation Officer last summer. We have spent the last year working on developing the Association across Canada.

The CANeLearn Board includes leaders in Blended and online Learning from BC to Nova Scotia. We also have representation from First Nations Virtual Schools. We are looking for more participation from Northern Canada and Ontario. Click here for the list of the founding Board Members.


Doug:  Your upcoming summit is a natural extension to this then.  CANeLearn is reaching out to educators across Canada.  What is the ultimate goal?  How will this benefit teachers in Ontario?


Verena: In my opinion, I learn the most by finding out what other people are doing and how they are learning. Working with online and blended educators from across Canada has helped me in my open learning projects and encouraged me to promote pedagogy first in my learning design and practice.  Ontario has a unique online and blended learning system, in that no other province has one resource centre, one LMS and one support network for public schools. Ontario teachers will be able to create and build networks which will help with professional development and hopefully lead to cross-Country projects. We are also promoting Open Educational Resources and considering a National LOR (Learning Object Repository) opportunities. My focus area is the “Centre for Innovation” where we hope to promote research across Canada in online and Blended learning as well as provide opportunities for EdTech companies and industry to work with organizations. Finally, we are starting our professional development programs which include teacher hosted webinars about their programs and possibly a University course on “How to .Teach in k12 Online and Blended Environments”


Doug:  That’s great that you’ve noticed the Ontario Educational Resource Bank.  A couple of other Ontario based resources are Cube For Teachers and the OSAPAC Collection.


We’re delighted that you submitted a proposal and were accepted for the 2014 #BIT14 conference.  What can attendees to your session expect?


Verena: The #BIT14 Session will be a collaborative #CANeLearn effort. #CANeLearn will be sponsoring the annual, “State of the Nation: K12 Online Learning in Canada” Report this year. Much of the research and writing about the different programs across Canada will be included in the Report over the next few months – and I will be able to speak about what we have discovered. The focus will be on Emerging Trends and Innovation – so session participants will learn about options to take back to their own learning environments.


Doug:  I’m very interested in your iNACOL award for innovation.  Can you tell us what that’s about?  What did you do that made them notice your efforts?


Verena: I wrote about it in my blog here. I called it the truth about being an Innovator because being an Innovator can be very difficult.. I remember Susan Patrick, the President and CEO of iNACOL introduced me and my iNACOL award. She  summarized that I was able to prove that you could create a whole online school – completely in the open, based on my work in the OC@ADLC (the Open Classroom at ADLC). I had never thought about it that way – but I guess I created my own “school in the cloud” while working within a more traditional online organization.


Doug:  Will you share your thoughts and advice about innovation at the conference?  Is it something that everyone should be known for?


Verena: Be real. People can tell when you are fake. Stay true to your values. Follow through on what you believe in. Admit when you are wrong and fail and try again. Collaboration and different opinions are priceless – so look for conflict and different people to work with.


Doug:  Readers should know that a lot of our correspondence has happened while you’re watching soccer.  Can you share some details about that?


Verena: I am a mom with three busy kids and their most recent passion is soccer. My husband helps coach my older son’s team and I am the Assistant Coach to my younger son’s U5 Team. Whenever things get too crazy or overwhelming at work – or in my online world – I just have to sit back and watch these amazing kids.  They have just gotten to the point that they realize they are supposed to score a goal – but it is way more fun to play, “What Time is it Mr Wolf”. They ensure that I remember play is the most important part of learning – no matter the situation or environment.


Doug:  We’re looking forward to welcoming you to Niagara Falls and hope that you can take in the entire experience – the learning and the social.  Do you have something in particular that you want to take in while at the Falls?


Verena: I have never seen Niagara Falls so that will be BIG! I also am really looking forward to connecting and hopefully meeting with people I follow on twitter or I met at #ConnectED 2 years ago in Calgary. I also heard about the amazing social activities at #BIT14 – like going for a morning jog (although for me it will be a morning walk) or tweetups. I want to be involved in conversations in order to learn new things.


Doug:  If it’s the first time at Niagara Falls, make sure that you book a falls view room.  The lights at night are amazing.  Plus, bring your camera and join the Photowalk to take some spectacular pictures to bring home.  You won’t regret it.


Thank you for the interview, Verena.  I’m looking forward to meeting you in person, hopefully at the Summit and certainly at the #bit14 conference.


Verena: Thank you!


You can follow Verena on Twitter at @verenanz.

Her web presence includes a Google Site at: