PBL, Creativity, and the Contextual Reality

An Authentic Curriculum

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I am working hard to develop a curriculum that “Get[s] Past Teaching Apps [and helping students] Build and Use a Student Technology Toolbelt“ (Cool Cat).  This focus is defined in my curriculum in terms of  students’ technology fluency, which is defined in Cool Cat’s post as:
the ability to determine and use the appropriate technology tool(s) for the task at hand in a manner that allows seamless transfer of created objects and documents to flow easily between the selected tools without outside intervention.

I also want students to be able to think critically and solve problems within a computing environment since things keep changing. As Cool Cat notes and Karl Fisch supports, “We cannot fathom what the future holds for them but we know what it won’t hold: It won’t hold the software that we taught them this year in its present fashion.”

Incidentally, the best way to do this would seem to be Project Based Learning (PBL), which Edutopia defines as:
a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges. With this type of active and engaged learning, students are inspired to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they're studying.

I must admit, however, that despite being somewhat creative in several areas, when it comes to project ideas, I've always been a bit of a parasite.  I, of course, like to think of it as symbiosis, since I do add to the projects I steal and share alike.  This has brought me to a discovery that there is not very much in the way of good solid projects for a stand-alone CIT classroom.  Most of what is available via, Edutopia, for example is cross-curricular in nature, applying CIT in the context of multiple subjects.  This makes sense since it is the most authentic way to apply technology.  Of course, I teach CIT in a vacuum, made more pronounced by the fact that I'm on a 9-week rotation, whilst my colleagues in the core subjects are on a 180-day rotation.

Occasionally, I find a gem, like "This New House" from High Tech High.  Again, it's a cross-curricular project, but I was able to tweak it for use in my class.  This was so fabulous that I'm using it for Seventh and Eighth grade this nine weeks... As you can guess, this means I need a new 8th grade project for next year... I have all summer, I suppose...

So, knowing that there are others out there like me, including my wife, who teaches a similar class in another district, I have a mission of sorts.  I intend to either find an online community repository of PBL resources for Computer Technology teachers or make one myself.

Beyond Apps, but Don't forget them...

Again, Coolcat is absolutely right, we do need to get past teaching apps, but we are in turns limited and empowered by those apps available to us.  Coolcat, for example, is lucky enough to be working in a Mac lab, which seems to be considered unholy by most IT departments in York County.  Her district's network security policy must also be a bit more liberal than ours.  She has access the the following:

coolcat's apps

I can't complain, though.  I don't need access to Mac's myriad apps.  My district was forward thinking enough to have Adobe CS4 Design Premium licensed for grades 5-12, which gives me access to a wealth of opportunity in terms of what students can produce.  I also have MS Office, including Visio and Publisher.  Granted, network security is tight at my district, making me continually frustrated in attempting to use anything for online collaboration.  I've struck out with just about every white-boarding technology out there, but I can still access tools such as blogs and social bookmarking.  Whether my students can sign up for these or not is debatable because we do not have a system for student email.  My students, can thrive, though, because they do have access to a lot of great tools.

I happen to know an elementary computer teacher with a lab full of antiquated PCs, a poor network connection, a host of useless and cheesy games, and MS Office (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint '03).  Did I mention that the network connection is so bad that she can't even use Office Clipart without crashing the workstations? Obviously, I can't share many of my projects with her.  She's very limited by the software available to her and a disheveled IT department.  Apparently MS Movie Maker is on her workstations, but it's hidden and only accessible by those with administrative privileges (IT is working on that).  Yeah, my blood pressure rises every time I hear about it. Incidentally, she's good to go for any projects that may include Carmen Sandiego or Oregon Trail.

Obviously, any attempt to share projects is going to hinge on the resources available.  If you don't have a lot available, you're limited in the scope of what you can do.  If you have some expensive specialized apps available, there's a great deal of pressure to make sure they get opened and used.

Constructivism, Collaboration, Context, and Experience

I like to consider myself a radical constructivist. I'm also aware that the world is moving toward more and more collaboration, online & otherwise.  I'm aware of all the benefits of cooperative learning and have advocated them loudly and somewhat abrasively for a long time.  I'm not, however, entirely unaware of my surroundings, and I do tend to learn from experience.  Here are some observations I've made about cooperative learning and collaboration in the middle school context...

Group Work

Sadly, despite a wealth of research supporting such techniques and a seemingly unending barrage of educational workshops, staff development sessions, and in-service events on the subject, students still enter the Middle School entirely unequipped to function in small group dynamics.  What's more, I've observed that despite individual teaching style and philosophy, it continues to be, with very few exceptions, only the first through third year teachers who seem to use group work.  Does this mean that teachers become lazy and disinterested in best practice as time goes on, or, as in my experience, do they discover that despite their best efforts, do they continually get work of a decidedly lower quality out of group assignments?

Yes, I know that you have to teach students how to work in groups.  I've had several classes in doing so.  I'm not some crotchety old codger who has tried this twice and given up.  My current course-wide project is being accomplished in small groups (thus far, to disastrous results , I might add).

Will I try group work next year?  Probably.  Should I have learned by now? Definitely.  Am I a glutton for punishment?  Evidence and experience would suggest "yes".

Online Collaboration

You're only as good as your lowest common denominator.

My newest San Juan Hill is Web 2.0 technologies for collaboration and publication.  I find myself viewing this issue with increasing urgency, particularly when I read articles, like the one quoted below.
Whether we like it or not, social Web technologies are having a huge influence on students who are lucky enough to be connected, even the youngest ones. Many 7- and 8-year-olds are busy exploring Club Penguin or Webkinz with other 7- and 8-year-olds half a world away, middle schoolers are connecting with global warriors in World of Warcraft, and adolescents preen themselves in front of their "friends" on MySpace and Facebook (Richardson, 2008).

As Susan McLester (2007) notes, "Our challenge as educators, parents, and community members: How do we empower and protect our students in an environment that increasingly excludes us?"  We have to get on board with this stuff.  I'm not just talking Blogs, either.  I'm talking Newsgroups, Social Networking, Real-time conferencing technologies and more.
Results of a 2007 national survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that 55 percent of all online American young people between the ages of 12 and 17 use social networking sites for communicating about everything from school-related issues to where the next party is taking place.

Clearly, this generation-poised to shape the future-has already found Web 2.0 applications integral to daily life. And for education not to step up and maximize these resources for teaching, learning, and driving innovation is to risk becoming marginalized as a viable influence in helping to shape the 21st century (Susan McLester, 2007).

With all of this urgency, one would assume that my classes singularly represent a Web 2.0 collage of collaborative awesomeness.  They don't.  I've made a few relatively unsuccessful attempts at class-wide blogging this year.  Why? You're only as good as your lowest common denominator.

It's an unfortunate result of this highly-litigious age, where education is so often the target of frustrated parents, zealous politicians, and a sensational news media that we’re too darn scared to provide students with the most elementary of 21'st Century tools, an email address.  It's all but impossible to unlock the potential of Web 2.0 tools without an email address, and roughly 1/8th of my students don't have one.  Those that do cannot access it at school.  Thanks to a host of issues, then, from the digital divide to over-protective guardians who do not give kids their own email address, it's all but impossible to teach these tools on a class-wide basis, particularly when your district is not will to invest in it with money for subscription services or server space.

A group of individuals: Whole class collaboration

Probably the most successful example of collaboration I've experienced in my lab was implemented through the use of multicolored Solo Cups.

I stole this technique from another teacher in my district and was heckled by my IT guys, who considered it flawed in light of the source, but I have found great success with it.

Basically, students have a stack of cups (green, yellow, red) on their workstations.  If they begin to run into a snag, they put their yellow cup to the top of the stack, and begin "Googling" thier problem, consulting the "Help" menu, and using any other available resources.  Meanwhile, nearby students, noting the yellow cup, may (and often do) come and halp the student.  When these resources are exhausted, and those nearby can't help, the red cup goes on top.  This is like raising your hand for teacher assistance, but unlike raising your hand, you are still able to work on your problem with both hands and a fully attended mind while your red cup does the job of getting my attention.

This may seem silly, and somewhat elementary, but it works wonders for whole group collaboration, often allowing me to learn from students who are very savvy in a particular application.

What I've found thus far...

A list of resources for those of us teaching tech (in a vacuum or otherwise)

I intend to keep adding to this list as I find new resources.  I also encourage you to comment me with any resources you've found for the good of the cause.


Articles and Inspiration


More to come...


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