Getting to Awesome - Building and Showcasing Student Projects

Sacramento employers and educators combined forces to design "awesome" projects for students to build.

Sacramento employers and educators combined forces to design "awesome" projects for students to build.

Career Education lends itself nicely to project-based learning.  Recently, 20 Computer Science teachers convened to design projects, utilizing the micro:bit, for use in an introductory Computer Science classroom.  Together, the teachers designed a "voting booth", "rock-paper-scissors game", and "digital nametag".  They found the concept of "physical computing" to be highly engaging - and could see their students finding the projects equally as engaging.

Moving forward, the teachers are going to work together to brainstorm effective ways for students to showcase their completed work.  Initial discussions including displaying work in publicly-visible locations at their respective campuses, as well as encouraging students to create a digital portfolio. 

Computer Science Standards in California - Coming Soon!

For the next three months, I am excited to work with a team of professional educators to advise the development of K-12 Computer Science Standards in California.  By formally providing CS standards, educators in California are enabled to teach CS concepts to their students.  Moreover, the suggested scaffold and progression will ensure that all students are able to access a discrete CS course during their high school experience.

With that said, I am interested to see how in-service teachers can be supported in the coming years, as they explore ways in which CS can be incorporated in their classrooms.  At the high school level, credentialing is a concern for teachers and administrators - who can currently teach CS and how can we support teachers who need additional coursework to earn an additional credential to teach CS?

Perhaps programs like Boise State University's Educational Technology Program can offer courses that would count toward the Supplementary Authorization in Computer Science?

Au(dio)gmented Reality

For the past few weeks, I have been intrigued by the role that audio might play in augmented reality.  Namely, Google announced the Pixel Buds at their annual hardware event on October 4, 2017.  The Bluetooth headphones are positioned to compliment the Pixel 2, which does not offer a 3.5mm headphone jack.  By using Google's Translate app, the Pixel Buds advertise real-time language translation.  They are also a direct response to Apple's AirPods, which we released almost a year ago.  Apple's Bluetooth headphones are completely wireless and connect with Siri with a simple double tap on either earbud.

With that said, I recently purchased a set of AirPods to try out with my Pixel XL.  Per a recommendation I received on a podcast, I installed the "AirPodsforGA" app.  In theory, this app maps Google Assistant to the double tap function of the AirPods.  To date, I haven't been able to get this work.  However, I am THOROUGHLY impressed with the comfort and convenience of the devices.  Comfort and appearance will be important traits for successful augmented reality devices.

Engaging and Effective: Block-Based Languages and Physical Computing Devices

In my daily work, I enjoy supporting middle school and high school Computer Science (CS) teachers in the Sacramento Region.  CS education is gaining a lot of attention in California - new standards are being developed, a K-12 implementation plan is on the horizon, and many curriculum and education technology providers have created cutting-edge instructional materials that are free or inexpensive to obtain.  With regard to student engagement and content mastery, I have observed successes and challenges in CS classrooms.

While syntax-based programming languages are industry standard, they aren't necessarily the most effective way to teach introductory CS concepts.  For example, a student learning the idea of a conditional in Java, may understand the relationship of an if-then statement but may be missing a } in the syntax.  Without proper syntax, the program won't compile and the student will receive negative feedback - even if he or she is understanding the conditional.  Block-based languages, while not industry standard, eliminate pesky typos and allow students to visualize the program they are building.  For Android, one would program in Java (or Kotlin).  However, MIT's AppInventor2 allows for students to build a working application with writing a single line of code.  Block-based languages enable more students to master CS concepts.

On a related note, CS can be more engaging when a physical computing device is involved.  In addition to working with my Android phone, I have spent some time with the BBC's micro:bit.  For $15, students can interact with a device that loaded with features.  Want to engage a student when discussing variables?  Teach a lesson that allows them to change the color of an LED that is embedded in a 5x5 array on the front of the device.  Using the web-based, block-based language, students can physically interact with CS concepts they are learning.  This is a critical component to mastery.

CS Funding ... For New Teachers?

Last week, President Trump pledged $200 million annually to support Computer Science education.  That pledge was matched by a group of companies, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, increasing the total available funding to $500 million.  While this is exciting, I worry that it will buy curriculum and gadgets for classes already teaching CS.  Given the demand for CS education and the dearth of qualified teachers, my hope is that this funding is used to identify, train and support new CS teachers.  In order to realize "equity" in CS, we need more teachers to be able to teach all students.

In Sacramento, the County Office of Education is working with local districts to introduce 24 new high school CS pathways in the next 24 months.  This is a step in the right direction, but is still not a realization of CSforAll.  To that end, awareness campaigns like Code.org's Hour of Code need to be coupled with a network of support.  Hopefully, President Trump's funding will support new CS teacher growth.

Free and Public Education: Do "Freemium" Educational Experiences Add to the Digital Divide?

While there are applications of technology that accelerating learning in ways that were not previously attainable, there are significant equity and accessibility issues that have simultaneously appeared.  The prevalence of iPads and Chromebooks in classrooms have allowed for students to experience local and web-based games that engage students and enhance learning.  Moreover, these games can provide critical data that can inform future instruction.  In previous posts, I have discussed equity issues in "One to One" and "Bring Your Own Device Environments".  I believe that equity and accessibility issues extend to the software - the educational games - that teachers are using in their classrooms with their students.

In the past few years, the term "freemium" has been applied to apps that give the user a taste of the experience and then prompt them to pay for an improved experience.  Apps like the popular Minecraft embrace this model.  Schools that can afford to do so can pay for the full version of these apps.  Other schools allow students to be exposed to the ads that display in the "freemium" versions.

Therein lies the equity and accessibility issues.  While I am assuming all students have access to a device, those students that are exposed to advertising are not truly receiving a free and public education.

New AND Classic: Educational Games Connect Generations

I remember the first time I died from dysentery.

Thanks to Minecraft EDU, students in 2017 can enjoy the all of the ailments one can might endure in The Oregon Trail.  The original game was created in 1974, but it still engaging and has educational value.  Yet, to students experiencing The Oregon Trail for the first time, this game may appear to be the "newest, latest and greatest".  However, many educators may remember their first trip across on the trail started by inserting a floppy disk into an Apple IIe.

What makes The Oregon Trail a new and timeless classic?  Perhaps, the game encompasses all seven of the Core Elements of Good Games, suggested by Shute and Ke.

  1. Interactive Problem Solving - The Oregon Trail is a "choose your own adventure" storybook with randomized challenges introduced to the player along the way.  To that end, the player is always trying to make the "best choice".
  2. Specific Goals - Get to Oregon, of course!
  3. Adaptive Challenges - Level of difficulty was an option introduced in later versions of The Oregon Trail.
  4. Control - Players control their destiny in TOT ... this is arguably the greatest strength of the game.
  5. Ongoing Feedback - Your Oxen have died.  Enough said.
  6. Uncertainty - The game was always randomized, so the story never fully repeats.
  7. Sensory stimuli - Look at that wagon wheel move!

While users don't have to put on a VR headset (yet) to enjoy The Oregon Trail experience, this new and classic experience is here to stay!

An ARKit for Education

The week of September 12, 2017 may be revered in technology history (or, as this Android fanboy sees it - not so much).  Apple announced three new models of the iPhone, including the iPhone X.  All three devices will have augmented reality capabilities, pushed by developers to the device using ARKit - Apple's augmented reality development environment.  The idea that software developers can easily leverage the power of the TrueDepth Camera (2010 called and it wants its Microsoft Kinect back) to create authentic experiences is compelling.  The next generation of applications are being developed at the time this post was published.

What if there was a framework - a kit - that educators could use to build world-class lessons that utilize VR or AR?  Just as developers need a structure to create inspiration for new apps that solve real-world problems, educators need a guide to help them create impactful and effective lessons for students.

This week, Boise State University's EDTECH 564 course explored a well-know AR app - Aurasma.  Although it is not the most intuitive experience, nor is it free of bugs, Aurasma could be a "kit" for users to create AR experiences in education.  Just as developers may learn from one another, I am excited to see what AR experiences my classmates create!

Why VR in Education?

Virtual Reality (VR) is defined as a "... computer-generated simulation of a three dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment..." (Freina and Ott p.1).  Yet, there are questions as to how and why the technology should be used in an educational setting.  During the Fall 2017 semester, I will be exploring ways in which VR and Augmented Reality (AR) can be implemented in a classroom setting.  Prior to taking a deep dive into implementation, I want to answer the question of WHY?

First, VR eliminates time barriers in the classroom.  Students in Southern California would not be able to take a physical field trip to the site at which gold was discovered in Northern California in 1849 - there is not enough time in the school day.  Moreover, students can explore the site at which gold was discovered in Northern California as if it were 1849.

In addition to solving for time problems, VR creates equity when physical access becomes an issue.  Students with special needs may benefit from being able to access content in VR.  There is also places where humans are unable to visit - like the depths of the oceans.  Using 360 degree videography, robotic submersibles can capture images and share it back to the classroom.

VR also solves for a related problem - limitations due to danger.  Students preparing to enter a dangerous or expensive career - like firefighting or airborne combat - can benefit from experiences produced in VR.  One might also see an application of VR in counseling and child psychology.

Lastly, VR can give students experience in cases where it would otherwise be unethical.  A high school senior in an anatomy and physiology course is most certainly prepared to conduct brain surgery.  However, VR allows for this student to experience brain surgery as a preview to a possible career path.

With that said, the current state of VR equipment in 2017 is a barrier for use in the classroom.  Inexpensive solutions do not provide students with a completely immersive experience.  Other equipment may provide a higher quality of experience, but is cost prohibitive for schools.  I am excited to see the future of VR - and the ways in which it can be more easily implemented in education.