Saturday, 28 February 2015

Arduinos, Galileos & Edisons

Students create astonishing work with Arduino.
Instead of electronics being something that is
done to them, Arduino lets them author their
relationship with electronics.
I'm a big fan of the Arduino microcontroller.  This tiny, inexpensive board plugs into your computer via a usb cable and lets you create circuits for lights, sounds, sensors or pretty much anything else you can think of.  You then write (or paste) some simple code into a window on your computer and send it to the board to have the lights flash, or music play, or have sensors sense.

As an introduction to how circuits work it doesn't get much better.  Because the coding you're doing has immediate physical results, it also makes for a tangible, tactile introduction to programming too.  You can find arduino boards for about ten bucks a pop.  With another five bucks in LEDs, wiring and other bits and pieces, you've got a basic electronics and coding lab that suits both tactile and non-tactile learners.  You could put together a comprehensive class set for the price of a single iMac.  If your school is chucking any electronics, suddenly you find yourself recycling lasers out of cdroms and wiring out of computers to expand your collection.

Since Arduino is open source, a variety of support programs have popped up around it.  Fritzing helps students create professional looking wiring plans, and 123d Circuits lets you create virtual Arduino projects before you plug in a single wire.  If you're wondering how tricky Arduino might be for younger students, 123d Circuits would be a great way to test feasibility for free.

My favorite part of Arduino comes after the introduction (we use Oomlout's fantastic ARDX introduction projects.  Students work through these and get familiar with how the Arduino works and the many components it can work with.  The real magic comes when they see how easy it is to try things on Arduino.  The summative for the unit is a self directed project where students are encouraged to experiment, fail and document what they're doing.  It's a great introduction to the engineering process and, for many students, the first time they are rewarded for failure at school (just know why it didn't work and find a way forward - the engineering process is intellectual resilience codified).

We've recently expanded our electronics ecosystem by getting a couple of super-Arduinos.  Intel has thrown its might behind the open source movement and created a couple of very interesting Arduino related products.

The unboxing of our Galileo created a big stir
amongst the senior computer technology students.

The Intel Galileo is an Arduino board on steroids.  With 
Microsoft also throwing itself behind this, you can actually have a version of Windows running on the Galileo!  We've already done so much with the Arduino, I can't wait to see what we can put together with the Galileo.
The size of an SD card, the Edison is tiny & powerful

The Intel Edison is the other experimental piece of kit we just got in yesterday.  It's the size of an SD card, but is a multi-core computer with built in wifi and bluetooth.  This tiny Edison is at the heart of the Nixie drone - an astonishing wearable/flyable drone camera that looks like magic.

Both the Galileo and the Edison are about $100 (about 10x the cost of a basic Arduino board), so we're going to see if they are ten times as awesome.  I suspect they will both tax senior computer tech students as they try and understand what these new boards can do.

There hasn't been an easier time to get into basic electronics.  With the open source movement creating lush ecosystems of compatible components, you'll find it easier than ever to put tangible electronics experiences in front of students.  In a world where electronics are something being done to society, wouldn't it be nice to teach students how to author that influence?

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Assessment NOT for learning

Exams are in the bag and I'm wondering what the point was.  Knowledgeable, capable students did well, incompetent students didn't, but neither have the opportunity to learn from their exams.  It begs the question: what is the point of an exam?

By high school most students think that education is something being done to them.  The write-an-exam-get-a-mark approach only confirms this in their minds.  If assessment isn't for learning, what is it for?  Beaurocracy?  To maintain the teacher as the final arbiter in the classroom?  Neither paperwork, nor maintaining hierarchical classroom structures hold much interest for me.

We're currently being told that if we don't make formal exams for all classes we'll lose formal exam days.  Good riddance I say!  The end of a semester should include a debrief and a chance to review your summatives and assess the state of your own knowledge in terms of course expectations.  This would provide a valuable pedagogical bridge between courses and empower students to take responsibility for their own learning.

From a teaching perspective, the debrief would mean that all the heavy, end of course summative assessment actually serves a purpose.  It isn't supposed to be punitive, and your grade in a class shouldn't be a mystery to you.  Assessment should be transparent and functional.  Most importantly assessment should provide you with an opportunity to improve your learning; formal exams are none of those things, they are the black hole that learning falls into at the end of a course.

At the end of this course I'm going to get you
to write a high stakes, stressful exam that
is the same for all of you regardless
 of your lea
rning styles.  It's going to assume
you all have the same writing abilities.  I'm
then going to surprise you with the results!
I would love to ask the student who left half his exam blank, why did you do that?  I'd like to understand where in his thought process he thought doing nothing was the way forward.  I'd love to question the student who ignored obvious clues in a text and completely misunderstood its intent.  I'm curious to see if, with a nudge, they are capable of seeing what was in front of them the whole time.  I'd like to congratulate and confirm for the student who wrote a fantastic final that, yes, you really know this stuff.

There is a time and place in learning to ask the hard question: do you know what you're doing?  The end of course summative could be this reflexive learning opportunity, but not when it's cloaked in formal exam tradition.

Instead of considering transparent, reflexive course summatives that provide assessment as learning, we're clinging to formal exam models from the early 1900s designed to produce secretive, teacher dominated results that serve no learning purpose.  If the organizational structure of a school schedule isn't serving learning, what is it serving?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Cookie Cutter 'Formal' Exams

We were recently told that our board is moving to a formal exam for every course model. We're told that this needs to happen because if we don't use formal exam days for formal exams, we'll lose the days.  Perhaps we should lose the days.  Formal exams are an echo from the past.  Desperately trying to 'keep' them by forcing them on everyone isn't the best approach to learning, it never was.  Clinging to status quo thinking seldom produces outstanding results in anything.

This conundrum once again has me feeling the friction between academic and technology classrooms.  To the majority of subjects in our school, an exam for every class simply means setting up more desks and running off more photocopies.

One of our auto-shop teachers tried running a 'formal' exam this semester.  He had tinkered with a car and then had students diagnose it.  Since he doesn't have a 24 bay garage, he has to have students approach the car one at a time in order to diagnose it.  Because he is expected to have all students in the room at the same time (exams are blocked into two hour scheduled time periods, one per day), he had students come up one at a time to diagnose and resolve the problems while the rest wrote written tests that  did not reflect how students had learned in his class during the semester.

Cookie cutter exam schedules for cookie cutter learners.

The formal exam structure didn't work at all in the shop.  The first kid up shouted out, "do you want me to change out this fuse?" and suddenly everyone in the room knew an answer.  It then kept happening.  When you've been teaching students to collaborate on diagnostics all semester, why would you suddenly have a summative that demands they don't?  Even if that's what a 'formal' exam is?

All that effort to create a genuine assessment within a standardized exam structure was wasted, but that doesn't stop us from being expected to bring meaningful assessment to all our technology students in this cookie cutter final exam format.  How meaningful can this two hour window be when our courses are tactile, stochastic and experiential?  In a class where there is a linear progression from question to answer, and were the skills are assessed on paper this works a treat, but not in tech.

Coop avoids the exam problem by creating individual summatives (each student has an interview).  Of course this means that each teacher is handling 25+ hours of assessment for each class they teach.  I'm surprised that they can stuff all that meaningful assessment into a single exam week.  While this resolves the problem of trying to fit individualized exams into cookie cutter academic schedules, it doesn't address the complexity of creating an entire class set of experiential problems of equal complexity (you couldn't have the same problem because the first student out would happily tell the rest what they are about to face).  Creating individualized, immersive simulation for each student might be the ultimate in summatives, but a factory styled school system isn't remotely designed to produce that kind of individualized learning opportunity.
Is this what an exam for every course looks like?  Kinda like
the floor of a very serious factory, or a university...

Would I like to create a 'formal' exam that offers my computer students real-world, immersive, experiential computer technology problem solving?  You bet, but expecting me to do that in a two hour window for dozens of students at a time suggests that the actual goal here isn't meaningful and genuine so much as generic and formulaic, like most 'formal' exams.

'Formal' exam is code for a university-styled, written, academic assessment.  It typically involves lots of photocopying and students sitting in rows writing answers to the same questions.  The teacher then spends a lot of time trying to assign value to this dimensionless form of assessment.  Like many other aspects of high school, formal exams are high school teachers imitating the university professors they wished they could be.

For hundreds of thousands of dollars with corporate sponsorship
 and post-secondary support, Skills Ontario championships
create meaningful, experiential tech-assessment.
If you're looking for an example of an immersive, complex, skills based assessment, we have a fantastic home-grown example.  Skills Canada does a great job of creating experiential assessment of technology knowledge and tactile abilities, but with million dollar budgets and support from all levels of government, private business and post secondary education, they exist in a different world from my classroom.  They're also catering to the top 1% of 1% of technology students.  I have to cater to the other 99.9% with nothing like that kind of budget.

I've been mulling over how I'm supposed to create meaningful assessment for my technology students in that two hour time slot and I'm stumped.  No budget is forthcoming to purchase equipment and tools so that I can have every student doing the same thing at the same time - I don't even have enough screwdrivers for all students to be building computers at the same time, let alone the computer parts needed to build them.  Those would be computer parts that some students would not ground themselves properly when installing.  Funding wouldn't just need to be there for tools, it would also have to be there to replace breakage due to incompetence.

Technology teachers already struggle trying to explain technology costs to academics with only a vague understanding and little experience in apprenticeship and the trades.  When students are heavy handed or absent minded it costs us money to replace what they break, yet we struggle to get funded on par with academic courses that do most of their work on paper.

Now we face the prospect of being forced to reduce our tactile, experiential, immersive learning into cookie cutter summatives that jive with the pre-existing academic scheduling.  Just when you think we might be evolving beyond the 20th Century factory model of education it rears its ugly head and demands reductionist assessment for all.  Wouldn't it be nice if we were looking to diversify summatives instead of cramming them all into the same schedule that existed fifty years ago?

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The End of Knowledge

I've just wrapped up a grade 11 university level English class.  I only tend to teach these classes once every couple of years now, so I see real differences in how academic students are evolving with technology use.

This time around we have a Google Apps for Educators system well established and I assumed academically focused students would be very handy with it.  I shouldn't assume these things.  Once again I'm surprised at how habitual digital natives are with their technology use; they know how to do the few repetitive things they use technology for very fluently, but asking them to extend that fluency to other software or hardware results in the same kind of frustration you see in anyone.  Technology use really needs to be a generally taught skill - teaching specific apps on specific hardware doesn't create real understanding of information technology.

Beyond the typical tech-incompetence that we prefer to ignore rather than resolve, there were some deeper implications to technology use that became apparent while marking the final exam.  As a general rule I encourage productive use of online information resources.  I consider a student who can meaningfully and accurately use the internet to enhance their knowledge to be in a good place academically.  I'm starting to rethink that position.

Marking these exams I was surprised at how many of the students I thought were A+ English students couldn't see the figurative implications of a fairly basic piece of satire.  This article from The Onion was included on the exam, but a frustratingly high number of students thought it was about ants.  Those that did pierce the literal barrier more often than not thought it was about the government (?) in spite of me telling them again and again that figurative meaning isn't your opinion, it's there in the text.  Less than 1/5 of the class were able to recognize the obvious references to religion and see that article as a satire about it.
Google doesn't know anything.  The confusion between
information and knowledge is now rampant.  It's
based on misunderstanding how technology works.

I'm left wondering, as I finalize grades in this class, how many students didn't so much understand Macbeth as spout internet revelations about it.  In class students would frequently answer questions from the smartphone Google search in their laps.  I once lamented, "there is no intelligence left, just high speed internet."

Perhaps the future of learning is the opposite of what it has always been.  Instead of internalizing information and creating constellations of meaning within our own minds, we only need know how to find what someone else said about it on the interwebs.  This raises some scary questions around what understanding is.  Complex ideas (like being able to see into figurative meaning in a text) aren't a matter of looking up what to say on the internet.  Skills like these are based on interrelated knowledge and practice.  If it isn't internalized (no matter how tedious digital natives may find that process), you don't know it.

That digital natives, even the really capable ones, are shying away from internalizing knowledge in favour of getting highly proficient at finding other people's thoughts online is a real problem.  General ignorance around how digital technology works allows people to say stupid things like 'Google knows everything!'  Educational technology happily exists in that ignorance, encouraging the use of technology without understanding the hows of it.  Rather than question technology use in learning using epistemology and pedagogy we try to mimic its general use in society where it is driven by market forces.  If the kids are carrying smartphones around with them everywhere, they should be in class too.  BYOD, wifi everywhere, a screen for every student; these things aren't going to necessarily increase learning; when you've got Google in your pocket you end up questioning nothing.

Learning has always demanded the internalization of information in order to form knowledge.  This was due in part to the scarcity of information in the past, but it also developed the kind of self discipline that allowed knowledgeable people to do their own research.  In our information rich world the struggle for knowledge is everything modern education is turning away from.  Student centred learning, 1:1 technology, metacognition, de-emphasis on traditional learning methods: all of this is the new normal.  What was once a demanding, internal process is turning into flat, generic, external fact regurgitation.

Digital natives live in a world of media at their finger tips.  The information revolution is, for them, an entertainment revolution where digital delivery systems create a personalized cocoon of immediate and continuous whim satisfaction. The personalization of media has created the impression that technology is there as either distraction or, at best, a shortcut to easy answers.  When all our knowledge is reduced to information we might be able to spout facts, but we understand nothing.


After repeatedly being told verbally and in writing that you can't have an electronic device within reach during a formal exam, one of those grade 11s had his cell phone fall out of his jacket pocket while writing.  He wasn't cheating with it, he just thought all those warnings didn't apply to him because asking him to leave his phone at the front of the room is the equivalent, in his mind, of asking him to pull off his ears.  The digital revolution is fusing itself to our bodies and our minds, and it isn't always an improvement.

Thoughts on how information becomes knowledge.  We simplify a complex process that demands focus and self discipline
when we infect human knowledge with machine fact.