The Change is Here

The change that is happening in the middle grades right now continues to astound me.

Eighteen months ago, our sixth grade teachers asked that we get rid of the carts of computers in their classrooms and just assign devices to the kids. It’s a small shift, really. Instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, we now have a computer in each student’s hands. But what a difference it makes.

DSC_0854-aWhen we say that we want technology to be ubiquitous, this is what we’re talking about. When it’s needed, it’s there. It starts up quickly, it has a great battery life, and technology problems are minimal. The students have them in study hall and at home and on the bus. When it’s not needed, it’s turned off and moved out of the way.

So, yes, students use their devices to access online resources. Some of those are the curated materials selected for them by their teachers and textbook publishers. Some are the results of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. They’re learning how to evaluate the credibility of those sources. In most cases, they’re much better at it than their grandparents are.

But they’re also using the technology to take ownership of their learning. Teachers are giving more choice, but they’re also tailoring instruction to the needs of each learner. Quick formative assessments are used to assess the needs of the class, and plans are dynamically adjusted to best meet those needs. That’s the big challenge in the middle grades, and the biggest reason why middle school has traditionally been so awful for so many people.

Next, students are collaborating  on creative projects to show evidence of their learning. They’re not just writing essays and putting together PowerPoint presentations. They’re making videos and infographics and simulations using tools that I don’t understand. They’re discovering how to write for different audiences and how to use multimedia to best convey their message. They’re combining knowledge from different domains and applying it to real problems.

And while they’re doing all of this in their science social studies classes, they’re also improving their technology skills, working harder on schoolwork, and having fun in the process.

So when I asked 12-year-old students why they like the 1:1 program, they responded with things like this:

  • I can personalize my work they way I want it and it helps us become independent learners.
  • When I need assistance, my fellow students and teachers are there to assist me; whether it consists technology help, or homework help. The 1:1 program helped me with achieving my school goals.
  • It helps us learn about the digital world and helps us become independent learners.
  • It gives you a chance to learn more, and do what you can’t on paper at school, while with the 1:1 program, you can do both electronic learning and non-electronic learning
  • The learning is fit for me and I feel that I can learn more things in a shorter span of time than I could before.
  • I’m able to chat or video chat my friends to talk about homework problems that I’m confused on.

If you want to see all of the results, including responses from parents and many colorful and encouraging graphs, they’re here.

So this week, we’ll collect the Chromebooks for the summer. When the students come back in August, we’ll give them back. We’ve been working with the seventh grade teachers for most of the school year to get them ready for this. For the most part, I think they’re ready. Then, we’re going to start working with the eighth grade teachers.

But the high school has no idea what’s coming.

Remembering Bob Sprankle

This is an excerpt from a post I wrote in February, 2008:

In the fall of 2005, I had read about podcasts, and was very interested in them. I drive 40 minutes each way to and from work every day. If I could find some good podcasts to listen to in the car, I could really improve how I was using that time. If I could do some sort of professional development — even informally — it would be time well spent.

I searched online for podcasts relating to education and technology. I’m a technology coordinator. I used to be a middle school teacher. I try to make it easier for teachers to use technology in their classrooms. I found two interesting ed-tech-related podcasts. The first of these was a podcast called EdTechTalk, and the other was Bit by Bit. I downloaded the latest episodes of each and burned them to CDs.

On the way home, I listened to EdTechTalk. As luck would have it, this was episode 27, which was their “Back to Basics” episode. In it, hosts Jeff Lebow and Dave Cormier re-introduced the EdTechTalk community. They talked about educational technology, open source software, their philosophies of education, and the potential of emerging “web 2.0” tools. I thought this was wonderful. These guys are talking about the same kinds of things I’ve been thinking about. They’re trying to use open source software and they’re trying to get people to collaborate, and they’re not blindly just drinking the Kool Aid and doing what the loud voices in education are telling them to. This is different.

Bit by BitThe next day, I put in the Bit By Bit CD. At the time, host Bob Sprankle was a teacher in a multi-age classroom in Maine. His students had been blogging for more than a year, and they had recently begun podcasting. The particular episode I listened to was episode 17, which was a recording of a presentation Bob gave at the 2005 Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in New Hampshire. Bob was talking about the podcasting project he had been doing with his students. Right at the beginning of the presentation, Bob says, “any time you need more information, go listen to episode 27 from Jeff.” He also pointed out that Jeff was sitting in the audience.

How cool is that? The second podcast I listened to referred to the first one. These people know each other. They refer to each other. They bounce ideas back and forth, challenge each other’s assumptions, push each other to new levels. This is pretty neat.

Throughout the next year, I continued to listen to these podcasts, along with some others. Each week, I’d burn a few CDs and listen to them in the car. They were frequently referring to other people in the educational technology community, and I found myself with a growing list of podcasts and people to pay attention to. It even got to the point where I was keeping a pad of paper in the car in case they mentioned something I wanted to look up later. I could jot down a couple words on the pad and then look it up later.

sprankleBit by Bit was the second podcast I listened to, and it opened up my mind to the idea of a personal learning network. I went on to start blogging and participating in online conversations and eventually podcasting and MOOCing and doing all those crazy things that like-minded people do to find and collaborate with one another.

When I started in this job, I was sure that I couldn’t last more than five or six years. When you work in isolation, you can’t keep up with current trends and research and best practices. Yet somehow, it’s 15 years later. I’m still here. I still do a pretty good job most days. That’s because of the network that I have. And I have that network, to a large degree, because of Bob.

Bob died earlier this week after a long health battle that left him unable to work for the last couple years.

Like most of the people I’ve worked with online over the years, I never met Bob. To me, he was mostly a voice in my headset. But his was a voice that had a lasting, positive impact on everyone who heard it. Many are remembering him with the hashtag #BobTaughtMe.

The community is going to miss him.


Coding != Career

Thirty years ago, when computers were still new, we didn’t know what to do with them. There was a sense — in that half generation between the widespread availability of computers and the advent of the Internet age — that the world was changing in fundamental ways. No one was sure what was really going on, but this was big. Really big.

Apple_II_plus[1]Schools bought computers because they thought children should be computer literate. They didn’t really know what that meant. They were struggling to prepare students for a world that no one understood. So they scraped together money from the media budget and grants and the PTA and they bought a few computers that they set up in a lab.  The digital age was here.

As students, we played a little Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand. We practiced our math facts. And then, we learned BASIC programming.  Programming seemed… important. This was a skill we would need. Everyone would have a computer when we became adults. Everyone would need to know how to program it. Plus, the computers came with programming software. It was one of the few things we could do without buying additional software, and those costs weren’t anticipated when they bought the computers.

I learned BASIC in fifth grade, and by sixth I had forgotten it. I learned LOGO, but just the turtle parts of LOGO, not the really cool list handling stuff that made it a useful language. I learned to type on a typewriter, which I then used through high school. Computers didn’t help me learn other things. They were a subject all to themselves. Our school didn’t have enough of them to teach students much of anything about them. And they didn’t know what to teach us anyway. So after sixth grade, I didn’t use a computer again until I was a senior in high school, when I took programming (in Pascal, this time) for fun.

Half a decade later, I found myself with a minor in Systems Analysis and half a dozen different programming languages under my belt. I was teaching a middle school computer applications class. My predecessor had spent about 80% of the course teaching programming. Having no actual curriculum to follow, I scrapped all of it, and focused on applications instead. I felt that students needed to know more about word processing and spreadsheets and presentation software than BASIC.  A year later, I was emphasizing Internet research, evaluating online resources, documenting sources, and using the Internet to disseminate content. These were things my middle school students needed to know. They’re still things they need to know.

source-code-583537_640At the dawn of the new millennium, I was teaching a high school programming course. It was an elective. It was a neat class for students interested in programming. But students don’t need to take auto mechanics to drive a car. They don’t have to study structural engineering to work or live in a high-rise building. They don’t need a degree in economics to work at the bank. The course I taught was an introduction meant to spark interest in the field. I never felt like I was teaching a necessary (or even marketable) skill.

The early 2000s confirmed that. Remember The World is Flat? Friedman talked about going to the drive through fast food restaurant, and talking to someone in India or China to order your food, which you then pick up at the window. Auto companies were making tail light assemblies in the US, shipping them to Malaysia for cheap, unskilled labor to put the light bulbs in, and then shipping them back to go into new cars. Software companies were focusing their systems design efforts in the US, but outsourcing the routine coding to India.

Programming is an entry-level skill. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s the kind of position that is more “job” than “career”.  Sure. There’s a bubble right now, and programming skills are in demand. There are also some good reasons to teach programming, because it helps students learn logic, reasoning, and problem solving. But if schools are reacting to the media hype around coding by teaching programming to a generation of would-be programmers, they’re preparing students for a future of unemployment.

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons, Pixabay.