From Computer Labs to Makerspaces

So nearly 7 months into our official opening of the Makerspace, I thought I would spend  a few minutes and honestly reflect on how it is going (more for my own sanity than anything).

Overall, it’s been a great learning experience and more the most part, it has been a very positive change for the students and the school. I don’t for one second regret the days of a computer lab and don’t think I could ever go back to teaching “technology” as a stand alone subject. I think those days are behind us and schools really do need to transition from this model to a more flexible learning space that reflects the needs of modern-age pedagogy, devices and learning environments (notice how I purposely didn’t use 21st century learning).

computer-lab

So why maker? Is this simply a new educational fad or buzzword, much like differentiation, learning styles, and performance assessment? Perhaps…but I’m willing to bet that it’s hear to stay much longer. Tools come and go but good ideas tend to stand the test of time. For me, it resonates with all my core beliefs in education; student-centered learning, personalized, authentic learning tasks, inquiry and problem-solving. You could argue that these are all buzz words as well but they are good buzz words, at least ones that have a deeper meaning than the former ones.

However, as much as I love technology, I think we really need to move beyond screens. Yes devices help us learn but they are a tool and there needs to be a balance with real hands-on learning using actual physical objects that don’t behave like perfect virtual models. We need things that break, stick, snap, twist and bend. Now more than ever, kids need to more hands-on experiences. As a Gen-Xer (or Gen Yer), we spent hours building forts, making messes, taking things apart and trying to put things back together again. Maybe this is me just being nostalgic but I feel I have a duty to ensure that kids don’t miss out on this.

ES Makerspace-Update #2

Awhile back, I wrote a post here about our Makerspace program. Since we are nearing the end of the year, I thought I would write an update of where we are at and a little about what I’ve learned along the way.

First of all, our ES Makerspace has passed budget approval and we are doing some major renovation of the space which I am currently in (formally an ES Tech lab). During the summer months here, we will give the room a facelift. This took an enormous amount of research and work. Since I’m not an architect or a builder, I found it challenging to make decisions on so many little details about the room. I had lots of input and support from my admin and teachers who gave me feedback along the way. I also had meetings with our Operations Director, IT Manger and Builders. After thinking carefully about the functionality of the room, I think we have a near final plan. I used a 3D modelling program to create this and you can see it here (click the 3D tab on the right to move around the space).

 

The idea is that it will have different spaces set up (electrical, woodworking and crafting areas) that are flexible for both storage and workspaces. The side benches on the left are fixed to the wall as well as the shelving above. Along the wall will be peg board and linbin flexible shelving to store tools and materials for kids like below:


The benches and other side tables will be on wheels so they can be moved around when needed. The side storage room is a bigger storage room for all school science and engineering kits and materials.

Now that the space is done, we need to start finding effective ways to utilize it as a school. The idea is that it is a shared space where classes can come and go as they please but also open before school and during lunchtimes where kids can “drop in” to work on Maker projects. I certainly do NOT want it to become a newer age computer lab where formal classes are being held. In addition, we are thinking of ways to have mini mobile maker spaces (on trolleys) that can come into classes as needed. Sort of like this:

makerspace trolley

Other than that, lots of really cool projects have been happening in classrooms. We launched a new Energy maker project in Grade 4 where students used the design cycle to solve an energy problem. They held an Energy Expo for parents and teachers to showcase their work. I really loved how students referred to the design cycle and all the little problems they had to solve. Here’s a few photos of their projects:

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Other than that, we held our first Family Maker Day which was a big hit (but a ton of work!). We had 100 students come with their parents and had 14 different stations that they could freely engage in (I think I’ll do a separate post for this).

Here’s a few photos from the day as well:

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Chromebooks-a new paradigm shift in schools?

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Next year, we have decided to buy chromebooks as the new 1:1 computing device for Grades 3-5. It was a difficult decision but I feel it was the right one now for a few reasons.

Let’s face it, chromebooks are not that new anymore. However, they have been quickly overtaking iPad 1:1 programs and other laptop programs, especially in the US as reported here and here. As an educator (and Apple Distinguished Educator), I believe its the right device for schools in the future. I’ve worked in 1:1 programs with iPads, Macbooks, Samsung tablet computers, Samsung tablets and soon, Chromebooks. While I’ve enjoyed some of the creativity Apple has given us, I’ve had to deal with the nightmare of managing these devices through iTunes (not friendly outside North America). I’ve also had to deal with the hardware and syncing issues of Windows 8 on Samsung devices…also a nightmare. Both of these options seem to require an enormous amount of technical support and infrastructure.

I honestly feel the software model in schools will be behind us. Most schools are now cloud-based in storage (ala Google Apps or O365) and there are a plethora of online tools that you really don’t need most software. The software model requires an enormous amount of time and money to support (imaging, updates, etc) and it can really detract from student learning. If a teacher finds an amazing software tool to use in the classroom, it needs to get budget approval then requires a technician (or if you are blessed with a proper MDM) installation, updates, etc. By the time this tool makes its way into the hands of kids, the just-in-time learning moment has passed. Mobile apps were supposed to be an answer for this problem but ipads and other tablets also present their own unique set of problems. Navigating through Apple’s legalities with volume purchasing programs and being forced into updating iOS is not easy. I’ve been there and it seems to be even more difficult lately. How often are you forced to update iTunes so it’s compatible with your OS and that in turn is compatible with the iOS you have installed? Times this by hundreds when dealing with student devices. Don’t even get me started with Windows…

So now I’m forced to look into another solution. Chromebooks. Take away the need for software, updates, expensive MDMs, tech support and imaging, and this is what you are left with. The other nice bonus is your get Google Apps for Education (which I’ll admit, I’m a fan) as well as Chrome apps (there are some great ones out there). Throw in the fact that they are 1/4 of the price of any decent laptop on the market and you have me sold. Let’s face it, most software companies have online versions now or you can pretty much find an online tool that does what traditional software does (PicMonkey for online editing, Prezi, WeVideo for video editing, etc). I’ll admit, it was a budgetary decision initially but the more I research and think about this, it really is the right tool for the job.

I’m in no way saying this is no way a golden ticket and not without its share of challenges (yes I know there is no real equivalent of Adobe Photoshop, Minecraft Edu, Final Cut pro or Lego Robotics software…yet). I honestly feel that the pros far outweigh any cons. I also feel its the right tool for kids in Elementary school. In my experience, 95% of what kids do with technology, can be done online. Let’s cut the tether on the educational software model collectively forcing companies to innovate and come up with creative cloud solutions if they haven’t already done so.

Time will tell and ask me in a year how I like them. For now, onwards and upwards!

 

 

 

Developing a Maker Program in schools

 

After a bit of a hiatus from this blog, I’m back! I recently had a baby so she’s taken up the majority of the time these days…

Anyway, back to tech stuff. One exciting initiative I’ve started at our school is creating a Maker Program in ES. It’s been an incredible journey so far and by no means, do I feel like we are there but we are well on our way.

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I recently co-led a “Making” preconference in November as our school hosted the Learning2africa conference. This workshop took a ton of work but thought it went very well and we had almost 25 participants. For those of you interested, here’s a link to the powerpoint. After some theory, we had a group challenge where participants had to create a device that would hover in a homemade wind tunnel and used the Design Cycle to create their devices. IMG_9966 IMG_9973

We also provided a number of breakout sessions on 3D printing, robotics, programming and arduinos.

This workshop was a nice way to share where we were as a school in terms of our Maker program journey but also to network with other colleagues from around the world.

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Things have actually progressed quite a bit since this.

A couple of updates:

  • Now have integrated design thinking Maker projects into 3 grade level units (Sound and Light, Forces and a KG Toys unit) and plans for several more
  • Got budget approval to completely redesign new innovative Maker Space room (photos to come…)
  • Leading staff PD workshops on Design Thinking and Maker spaces
  • Created a Grade 5 Tech Crew group which have been teaching other grade levels: 3D printing, robotics, circuit creation
  • Planned a Maker Family Saturday for later this year
  • Ordered tons of new resources to expand the program!

So what does design thinking look like in ES? Here’s a video I made from last year:

 

Design Thinking in ES from AISJ on Vimeo.

Continue reading Developing a Maker Program in schools

Minecraft-A new virtual tool for learning

I just read a great post from this blog on Minecraft and thought I would add my thoughts on the subject.

Whenever you mention the word “video game” to a parent, it often brings quite a few negative connotations. Usually the negative words associated with this are: blood, shooting, waste of time, and mindless.  As an adolescent, I remember trying to justify to my mother that hours of playing Nintendo’s Zelda were actually beneficial to me. I would say, “but it improves my hand eye coordination Mom!”  She would often let out a sigh, roll her eyes and give me another 15 minutes to try and complete another level.  At the time, improving hand eye coordination was really the only apparent benefit of playing video games at the apparent cost of so many.

As part of my graduate research,  I have recently been doing quite a bit of academic research on game-based learning. Typically, with any new type of technology, there is a bit of resistance and usually group of critics who often propagate myths without having done the research themselves. I have encountered similar resistance when we first started doing blogging in the classroom (how can blogging possibly improve academic skills?), ipads and mobile devices (they are a distraction and waste of time) and now games.

Fast forward 20 years and gaming is still a huge market.  Video games have evolved into highly sophisticated multiplayer games and strategy-based games that require much more than trying to rapidly tap A, A, B, B, select, start, up, down as fast as you can. Sure, those games certainly exist but new genres have hit the market that require higher-order thinking skills, complex communication, collaboration and problem-solving.  One of those genres, simulation games, is beginning to overlap with other fields such as medicine, military and education.

Watch this fantastic video that paints a nice picture of the role of simulation games in education:

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what are simulation-based games?

Simulation games are virtual games that simulate a real-world experience that are often difficult or dangerous to take part in real life. Some of them are life-based simulation games such as the Sims and others are more construction and strategy based games such as Civilization, SimCity World of Warcraft, and Minecraft.

Games (not just video games) have actually taken quite awhile to be taken seriously by educators.  Games, by themselves, are obviously highly engaging, fun and motivating. However, these reasons alone are not enough to use them educationally. For example, Uno is a fun and engaging game but this alone doesn’t mean that it should be used in the classroom. There needs to be careful planning, goals, integration into the curriculum and reflection built into any type of technology or innovative practice.

I have recently been using Minecraft in the classroom to help develop some important mathematical concepts as well as those higher-order thinkings skills. As a teacher and a bit of a gamer myself, I can clearly see the advantages of leveraging games for learning.

So what is Minecraft?

 

Minecraft is a virtual 3D simulation game in which players need to look for resources to use to craft and build just about anything. There is a one player survival mode where it is just you alone in the world and there are monsters out there so you need to survive. There is also a creative mode feature where you have access to all resources in the game.  There is also a multiplayer mode (my favorite) where you interact and collaborate with people in real-time. Creativity is absolutely endless and I have seen people build ancient pyramids, castles, and even whole cities!

So how can you use Minecraft for learning?

Math-Since Minecraft is in a 3D virtual world, it is very easy to link in geometry and measurement concepts. I had 5th grade students complete a series of challenges involving fractions and percents. I built some structure and students had to figure out what percentage of each material I used. Then, I had them build a house involving some specific percentages of blocks. It is very easy to explore concepts such as volume, area, perimeter, coordinates and measurement. I had 3rd grade students build a real construction of a garden project they did in which they had to use specific perimeter and areas of their garden (planned ahead of time). Then students actually got to grow their own crops in the garden! Video of my idea will be posted below:

 

Geography-Geography is an easy way to explore using Minecraft. Difficult concepts such as topography, mapping skills, types of maps are a natural part of Minecraft. I found a great video by a fellow teacher in which he explored contour maps show below. I am planning out a series of lessons shortly

Economics/Math-Minecraft has plenty of multiplayer servers. Recently, I joined one and I am absolutely amazed at the kind of learning that happens on this. One server has an economy built into it so players receive money from selling their items. People also begin opening up shops selling and trading items. This opens up a real life (sort of) context where students could learn the idea of supply, demand, market prices and how economies are built.

Science-I have been following a high school teacher in Australia who uses Minecraft to teach concepts in biology. For example, he has students construct 3D models of eukaryotic cells. He uses a multiplayer mod to explore how neurotransmitters work.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Create an Effective Technology Lesson

All too often I see teachers who struggle to teach effective technology lessons. Really, an effective technology lesson should mirror an effective teaching lesson but with a few changes.

The Pre-Lesson:
Just like any lesson, you should start with the end in mind. What is the big ideas and smaller outcomes? Keep it specific and too the point. Make sure that it connects with the rest of the curriculum. Long gone are the days of teaching specific skills out of context such as how to format a paragraph (unless you are teaching it in a writing context). In other words, don’t teach technology skills in isolation. I usually think about a project that I want students to work on and then break it up into smaller mini-lessons that will key on some specific skills. For example, one project I did last year with the Grade 3s was designing a Favorite Author poster using Comic Life. I knew that most students hadn’t used this program before. So first I created a sample product on my own. I can’t stress how important this step is. By creating a project of your own, it allows you to see all the steps involved, work out any bugs or potential issues, and see it from a kid’s point of view. If you have already done this before, then no need to do it again unless there have been some significant updates to the program. This step is also important because you want to give a sample that students can work towards. This obviously motivates them and gives them a clear end in mind.

Here is the sample project I gave the kids:

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The Lesson (10 minutes max):

You need to hook students in somehow. Start with a story like, “I was reading this book the other day by Lemony Snicket and I realized how much I enjoyed all his books. I decided that I wanted to create a poster to show other people why I like him and promote his books”. Make sure you have a good visual on your SMART board or projector at this point. Then give the challenge to students. Explain the goal and why they are doing the project. Do a “walk-through” of how to create a new one, breaking them down into no more than 5 steps. Review the steps (or have students tell the steps back to you). Sometimes if it isn’t the first time, I let the students who can tell me or show me the steps back go first to the computer as a bit of a reward (just make sure they still listen to the remaining steps). I also like to show a couple of advanced tools and say, “Hmmm…I wonder what this tool does. That would be really cool if someone could discover what it does” This allows for a bit of differentiation and motivates students for extension. I usually go over a checklist or assessment rubric just before they go as well.
Here is an example one I did for a podcast:

Podcast Assessment

Post Lesson:

I like to spend 3-5 minutes at the end of the lesson to wrap it up. This actually is an often overlooked step but essential for meta-cognition processing. Allowing a few minutes to share what they made (show their work if possible) or explain some discoveries of some new features is very important. Always try and make time for this.

So that’s it in a nut-shell. It really just comes down to good teaching practices. It really is a special blend of art and science. The art is in the delivery and the science is the formula and preparation. But if you are unfamiliar with a program or project, you really need to explore it yourself first. Test all electronics out before the kids are there (projectors, cables, etc) so that you don’t have any technical problems along the way. Good Luck!

Google Apps in Education

This week has been one of the smoothest starts to the year technology-wise that I have ever had. It’s really hard to believe considering all the changes that have happened over the last few months too. For starters, we switched over to Snow Leopard Server, had 30 SMARTboards installed in teacher classrooms (with very little teacher training), brand new Macbooks for all teachers, switched our entire communication system over to Google Apps and now a class set of iPod Touches on the way. And we’ve barely heard a peep from the normal parade of complaints coming from teachers and students during the time. The Tech Gods must be smiling down on us from cyberspace.

One of the most important changes that has happened is the move over from First Class (Boo!) to Google Apps (Yay!). When I first arrived at this school 2 years ago, I can’t tell you how frustrated I was. I was coming from a leading IT school where we were 1:1 and had cutting edge learning for students. Taking a few steps backwards, I was so frustrated at how difficult it was to communicate with my colleagues and find information. I had to go through a minimum of 14 sub folders to even find the curriculum! Now, with Google Apps, it just oozes collaboration and efficiency. Now, and if you use gmail you will know that emails are threaded conversations and much easier to follow. Google Docs allows for everyone to work off one document and efficiently collaborate together. Students now have Google Sites as their digital porfolios and the learning never stops just because the school bell has rung.

If you are at a school and frustrated with archaic communication systems, I highly recommend that you take a look into Google Apps. Of course, there are plenty of other worthwhile options but Google Apps is free and you have (almost) unlimited storage!

Here’s a quick video of Google Docs for those of you that aren’t familiar:

Does digital media disconnect us from the past?

As human being, we tend to live in the future. What am I going to have for dinner? What will I say in my next meeting? Where should we go on our next vacation? Rarely do we take the time to open up those old dusty photo albums and reminisce about the past. The times that we do can truly be powerful and bring back a flood of emotions. But there is something special about doing so with something physical  and tangible such as a photo album, souvenir, or gift.  It is often more special when you can share that with a friend of family member. The past makes us appreciate the moment and be grateful for the things we have.

Family Album

So why is the past important? As Stuart Mclean, a famous Canadian radio broadcaster, author and storyteller, puts it in one of his Vinyl Cafe stories, Niagra Falls (which I highly recommend a listen)

Sometimes however, when we are lucky, we feel we get to reach out and touch yesterdays both near and far. When we’re very lucky we feel the human connection with those that were hear before us. That’s why we read books, that’s why we study history and listen to recordings of years gone by…

Only very occasionally and only by surprise does the past tip toe behind you and whisper in your ear,  and remind you that we are not alone and there were others before us who laughed and loved too. And when this happens we should stop and salute the ghosts of our past and acknowledge even if it’s with a shrug, the grinding passage of time.

So this brings me to my question. With the development of podcasts, blogs, ipads and online photo albums, do we run the risk of sacrificing a disconnect with the past since we lose that physical and somewhat more permanent component? Of course, blog posts are supposedly saved somewhere in cyberspace and Flickr promises not to delete photos. But having all our memories and connections saved in gigabytes and fiber optic cables seems a tad disconcerting to me. What will the future look like for family get togethers? Having everyone gather around an ipad and view a family wedding as tears of nostalgia stream down. Or will even be in the same physical space? Will we be subjected to merely sharing comments via Facebook such as “LOL, Mom remember when u burnt that birthday cake 🙂 ROFL “?  Time will only tell I suppose…

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Reflecting on the “e-path” traveled

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As we are on the homestretch of the school year, I finally have a moment to reflect on the year? After so much teacher technology inservice and so many amazing projects being accomplished by using technology, I ask myself, did we accomplish our goals as a technology team?

One of my main goals as a Elementary Technology Facilitator, was to help teachers, help themselves so ultimately, they can help their own students improve their learning.

Finally after months of hard work, I can really start to see the growth of our school in a technology sense. Initially, many teachers came with a very basic amount of technology skills (most were comfortable with email and websites) and few used some of the innovative software that we had installed on our macs. 2 years ago when I mentioned things like Photobooth and iMovie, I was greeted with blank stares from teachers. In contrast, now many teachers use these tools on a daily basis to create their own class movies and projects. In fact, these teachers are now becoming experts in their own right and teaching other teachers. Here is just a partial list of some of the amazing anecdotal notes I have made about using technology school-wide to improve learning:

  • Teachers spontaneously creating/editing their own iMovie projects
  • Teachers creating their own Google class web site (wiki) and have their students working on their own e-portfolios till late at night
  • Teachers teaching each other how to create Keynotes, podcasts and slideshows
  • Classes using iStop Motion to capture changes in the life cycle of a caterpillar over the course of the day
  • Students coming down to our sound studio with scripts and ideas to create their own podcast shows
  • Students creating and developing their own iStop animation projects and uploading them to YouTube (and checking the “hit status daily)
  • Many teachers (and students) have their own personal and class blog sites
  • Our assemblies have become lively, student-centered, media-rich dynamic presentations using many technology tools embedded in their presentations
  • 8 SMART boards have been used and they have been so popular that over 23 more have been requested for next year
  • Document cameras and projectors have become the expected “norm” for classrooms
  • Parents have got excited about technology and have done inservice sessions on Web 2.0 themes and iPhone apps
  • We have got a class set of iPod Touches approved for a pilot program for next year!

I’m sure there are so many others but sometimes it is always good to stop and look back and appreciate the road that we have traveled rather than the obstacles ahead.

Mapping: From 2D technology to 3D models

Recently, I have been using a program called Neighborhood Map Machine to support the Grade 2 Social Studies unit on Communities and the Grade 3 unit on Mapping and Landforms.

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Above: A map mystery of an island community created by a student.

Overall, I’ve been very impressed with the program. Not only does it have many map mysteries and activities that reinforce mapping skills such as measurement, compass work, coordinates and direction but one of my favorite features is the ability for students to create their own maps and mysteries.

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Above: Students creating 3D models from their maps designed using Map Machine

Creating in general allows students to access higher-order thinking skills according to Bloom’s Revised Digital Taxonomy31637583

Neighborhood Map Machine allow students to not only create their own map and add roads, houses, people, buildings and landforms but also record audio, video or text clues for a mystery. They choose a mystery location and have students follow their own clues to find the secret location. All of this involves some considerable higher-order thinking since they need to plan their clues in advance and ensure that they communicate their clues clearly.

A colleague of mine had a great idea to take this a step further. We found out that you can print 3D nets of the buildings so we decided to have the students create a 3D model of their 2 D map that they had done during technology time.

I would love to hear how others have used this program in the classroom!

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3D model done by some Grade 2s