Hey, Computer Teachers, stop wasting students' time! (Part 2)

In my previous post, I argued that mandatory computer courses, particularly on the secondary level (7th grade and beyond) should move beyond a myopic focus on keyboarding and Microsoft Office.  I did note that a curriculum steeped in keyboarding and productivity applications is quite appropriate and often essential at the 2nd through 5th or even 6th grade levels. By grade 7, though, if we're not moving students forward and addressing the actual standards for our grade level, rather than reiterating elementary school, we're doing our students a serious disservice. In that post, I promised a Part 2 that would share ways that you can "transform your computer classroom into a relevant, standards-compliant, juggernaut of 21st Century STE[A]M-tastic awesomeness." Talk about over-promising! Okay, I'll do my best. On to glory...

Beginning with the end in mind.

If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there. This is why we have objectives and standards in education. In my classroom, I am to adhere to the ISTE NETS as my official standards.
ISTE's NETS for Students (NETS•S) are the standards for evaluating the skills and knowledge students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly global and digital world. 
Simply being able to use technology is no longer enough. Today's students need to be able to use technology to analyze, learn, and explore. Digital-age skills are vital for preparing students to work, live, and contribute to the social and civic fabric of their communities. (NETS-S)
If you don't follow the national standards, you likely focus on your State's standards. Pennsylvania, where I reside and work, has Computer Information Technology Standards for grades 6-8 and 9-12 among its secondary computer standards. These standards focus on many of the same core STE[A]M-based concepts as the ISTE NETS. They look for students to be able to "interpret and apply appropriate social, legal, ethical, and safe behaviors of digital citizenship", "create advanced digital projects using sophisticated design and appropriate software/applications", evaluate online sources of information, and "create multimedia projects using student-created digital media."

In either case, there is a clear focus on Technology Fluency, Technology Skills (as opposed to rote technology knowledge), and ultimately Project [or problem] - Based Learning. Technology fluency is an idea I discussed in my last post, which is essentially a term I've stolen from Vicky Davis. Davis defines true technology fluency 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." Basically, we want kids to learn to apply technology skills in the myriad, fluid ever-shifting ways they're going to have to in life. A class that builds those skills is going to revolve around project based learning by default.

Project-Based Learning

"Project-Based Learning" is hard. If you do it right, it is overwhelming to say the least. The big problem is that project or problem-based learning doesn't fit the current context of our system. PBL wouldn't seem so darn insurmountable in say a summer workshop or after-school program. In school, it seems nearly impossible.

Project-Based Learning and Problem-Based Learning are like first cousins that you would swear are siblings. They have a lot in common and look very similar, but hardcore purists and edu-snobs are quick to point out how different they are. Basically, in Project-Based Learning, students have a load of choice about everything. Think "Montessori". The project may or may not address a specific problem. In Problem-Based Learning, a specific problem is specified by the teacher. This is probably a bit easier to incorporate into your class. I started with two projects, and now I'm up to about nine, six of which get chosen regularly. Students choose the topic from my list of nine canned topics, and I require students to show specific skills, but beyond that the students can do the project how they see fit. In the end, I don't think my projects are true project or problem based learning. One way or another, we're going to have to break some rules to make this fit, especially if you're in a public school setting. We're also going to have to embrace the fact that sometimes we don't know what we're doing and often we must fake it. 

Fake it while you make it

When embracing something radically new, like problem or project based learning, it helps to maintain sanity if you remember three big ideas:

  1. Reality doesn't favor thoroughbreds.
  2. Relax, you will not know all of this stuff before you begin.
  3. There are a lot of ideas out there to steal. 

Reality doesn't favor thoroughbreds.

Just like pure-bred animals struggle in nature, theories of educational practice, no matter how well conceived, must adapt or die when faced with the wild, untamed environment of the real classroom. As I mentioned earlier, the model used in my classroom isn't strictly Project-Based Learning or Problem-Based Learning. The key ideas I'm shooting for are:
  • I want to simulate professional situations.
  • I want the work and learning to be student-centered.
  • I want to act as a facilitator more than a lecturer.
  • I try to provide multiple sources of information / perspectives for students to use.
  • I shoot for assessment that is more authentic and performance-based than arbitrary and quiz-like.
  • I try to develop projects that create a need to know my essential content and skills.
  • I have students publish their work before a public audience.
Walkthrough - A step-by-step
guide (typically used in games)
Notice that there is a lot of "I try" and "I shoot for" kind of language in there. I teach 7th and 8th graders in a computer lab every other day for nine weeks. The bulk of their schooling experience to this point and in most other classes is not project-based at all. Contrary to the assertions of my favorite Constructive theorists, students raised in a Behaviorist environment aren't all naturally curious, and learning based on topics they're intrinsically motivated to explore doesn't automatically create a desire to create something awesome -- or even anything. I'm not saying it wouldn't if this were outside of school, but once they enter this environment, years of training in "how this works" kicks in. Be prepared to aim for the list above, while often resorting to the ugly realities of:
  • Grading almost everything that isn't a sneeze.
  • Constantly monitoring students for productivity (do not sit down... ever).
  • Repeating yourself a lot (or making videos / screencasts so you don't have to).
  • Creating detailed walkthroughs of projects for students who need a linear progression spelled out to get anywhere. 
I know, this sounds scary. I'll talk more about grading and assessment while avoiding insanity in a moment. For now, on to the second big idea...

You will not know all of this stuff before you begin. 

Developing projects that require students to "interpret and apply appropriate social, legal, ethical, and safe behaviors of digital citizenship" or evaluate online sources of information might be well within your comfort zone. Having students "create advanced digital projects using sophisticated design and appropriate software/applications", "create a multimedia projects using student-created digital media", or "use programming languages to develop logical thinking and problem solving skills", on the other hand, might be a bit of a stretch for most of us. If your state connects Computer Information Technology to Business, like Pennsylvania, you might have no background in anything more advanced than desktop publishing. Lucky for you and me, the magical world of the Internet is full of stuff we can start using right away, whether we have a clue what we're doing or not. Below are just a few of the tools I began this journey with, many of which I'm still using in my classroom. There are definitely more out there, but I've tried to focus on free stuff.

Game Design & Programming - Many of these tools are web-based apps that are fully scaffolded with lessons, community support and opportunities to share work.
  • Gamestar Mechanic - exploration in "Systems-Thinking" and "User-Centered Design". 
  • Scratch - create programs & learn core computational concepts 
  • Tynker - like scratch, but with interactive lessons (for elementary & middle school). 
  • Alice - create programs & learn core computational concepts for older / more advanced students
  • Code Academy - gamified approach to teaching code, includes Ruby, Python, PHP, JavaScript, html, CSS, and JQuery. 
  • Stencyl - drag-and-drop game designer that allows advanced users to code new features & create complex behaviors.

Multimedia & Design - These ultimately have less educational support behind them, but there are typically a ton of tutorials available on YouTube to get you started. 
  • Adobe Creative Suite (CS2 is Free)
  • WeVideo - cloud-based online video creation platform (not quite Premiere but more features than iMovie or Live MovieMaker) 
  • GIMP - Open Source raster editing (think Photoshop)
  • Inkscape - Open Source vector drawing (think Illustrator)
  • Blender - Open Source 3d composting (think Maya)
  • Sketchup - Free 3d technical drawing and drafting (think Autocad / Solidworks)
I'm going to stop here, but there are a ton of Chrome Apps and other awesome web-based tools out there. The bottom line is, if you can conceive of a project that meets your standards, chances are you can get some tools into your students' hands to complete it without spending a dime of taxpayer money. 

There are a lot of ideas out there to steal...

The Internet is a crazy magical confusing jumble of awesomeness and peril. I need not tell you this. As The Buck Institute for Education notes on their Project Based Learning site when you "research PBL on the internet, it's like drinking out of a fire hose." Here are some curated resources to get you started:

Grading all this stuff

Break the rules 

If it doesn't fit, force it. School is all about distinct periods, separate subjects, and content that is divided and tested by lesson. Student grades are typically based on a punitive system of points deduction in the context of strict deadlines. This is not only the way it has always been done (TRADITION!), but also is the only acceptable way to do any subject that is subject to a standardized assessment in the eyes of most public school districts. As computer teachers, though, we have the rare luxury of not being tested. The bean counters in high places haven't shined their incinerating magnifying glasses upon us yet, and we have some freedom to blow this whole thing up. Here is how you can break the rules and circumvent the system to teach the way students learn and still provide grades for your students.

Step one, stop collecting everything! If you find sitting down with a pile of stuff to grade relaxing, I can't really stop you. Seriously, though, how often have you been grading something and said to yourself, "I wish I could talk to this student about this." It's difficult to assess what someone knows using an assignment you judge in the absence of the one who created it. Now try keeping track of several different projects. You can't collect everything. You'll lose your mind. Stop.

In fact, I would say your whole class will move up a level if you never photocopy another packet or handout. 

Step two, talk to your students and watch what they're doing. This seems simple, but observation and dialogue can be very powerful tools for assessment. If you regularly engage students in one-on-one interaction, in person or via a tool like Edmodo, you give them opportunities to share what they know, to share how they're applying what they know, to reflect on their work, and to benefit their peers around them with what they know. You can begin with simple, open-ended conversations, like:
  • What are you doing?
  • Why did you choose to use / do / design x?
  • What audience did you have in mind when you made decision x?
  • What other tools could you use here, and why did you choose to use this one?
You can center your questions around specific skill checklists or rubrics, focused on your standards. You may say, "this works great for day to day grading, Clint, but I need some evidence of what my students are or are not doing." 

This brings us to: Step three, familiarize yourself with alternative forms of collecting evidence. You have a lab full of technological awesomeness at your fingertips. Use it. Have students post screenshots with a short reflection on their work daily, using a tool like Edmodo. This provides space to:

  • collect regular work.
  • make progress public (students are more invested in public work).
  • promote social interaction and an iteration - feedback loop.
For more long-term assignments or more complex work, have students fire up a screen capture app, like Screencast-o-matic (free and on the web) to record and reflect on what they're doing or even teach the skills they're developing. They can share these on anything from social spaces, such as the aforementioned Edmodo, to an official LMS, like Moodle or Sakai, or to their personal online portfolio or blog. 

If you can pull off not collecting everything, talking to your students more, and using alternative forms of collecting evidence, you should experience some added benefits beyond your own sanity. One of the biggest benefits is freeing students up from due dates and deadlines or perhaps the thought that something even needs to be finished / perfect / etc. It is amazing the level of challenge the average student will willingly embrace on a project of interest if they're not worried about a looming deadline. Another key benefit is engagement. If there are no due / collected artifacts, the work never ends. Students don't race to develop mediocre projects so they can be "finished." They're never finished. There's always more awesome to create. Ongoing assessment, rather than summative and final assessment, ensures a higher level of concern and engagement. 

Grading & ABI

Finally, I want to refer you to a grading system that will keep this whole thing more positive than negative, while capturing the essence of what make games such successful teachers. I'm not going to repeat this whole post here. You can read it at this link. If you're sick of my written voice at this point, the system essentially works like this.
  • A = 90%+ (Above and Beyond) - Do 100% of what you're asked to do, and more. Successfully demonstrate all key skills, and find new ways to apply them. Complete extra credit. Add awesomeness to your projects.
  • B = 85% (the Basics) - Do 100% of what you're asked to do. Successfully demonstrate all key skills. 
  • I = Incomplete (not 0) - You haven't done 100% of what you were asked to do, or you have not successfully demonstrated key skills. You and I will spend a lot of time together until you do. 

Part 3... Part 2.5???

Okay, this is waaaay longer than I had planned, and we never picked apart a complete project. I'll probably do a follow-up post this winter. For now, I have other things I want to write about. Until then, fellow tech tweeps, DFTBA. 


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