10 Computer Class Tools you should be using right now!

Engaging Middle School students is hard, even in the computer lab. In one of my recent posts, I mourned the loss of several great initiatives and tools that are no longer with us. As I looked over my contributions to the CSK8 (Computer Science K-8) community in this blog recently, I noted that a lot of what I was doing / promoting just two years ago, is completely antiquated now. On a positive note, though, it's 2019, and there are a lot of great new things to be excited about. As long as there are technology producers as well as consumers, computer class will remain very relevant, despite the prevalence of thin devices, such as iPads and ChromeBooks.

Let's take a look at 10 things you should be including in your computer class in 2019 and a few honorable mentions for the good of the cause...

Classroom Environment

Today, I'd like to begin with Danielson's Domain 2, Classroom Environment, because sometimes the atmosphere we work in can profoundly affect the work itself. 

Classcraft
  
Recently, I decided to roll out Classcraft in all of my classes, and I have found it to be surprisingly effective. Not only do students take the health and experience of their characters very seriously, but they also strive to help their teams and classmates in general. One thing that surprised me was how much students crave XP (or experience points).

What I do with Classcraft has no effect on student grades whatsoever. Yet, I can attach points loss / gain consequences to my behavioral and procedural expectations via XP and HP. While these points don't matter in terms of students' grades, they do matter a great deal to students, who are ultimately more concerned with the game than their grade anyway. They get so excited about equipping their avatar with custom stuff, and many of them are becoming XP hungry.

Edmodo

I know that Edmodo is old hat, and that many districts have begun using much more sexy Learning Management tools, such as Schoology, or Canvas. The problem is, I still don't see Edmodo as a Learning Management system. Edmodo describes itself as "a global education network that helps connect all learners with the people and resources needed to reach their full potential". I see Edmodo as a Social Network. It looks like a social network. It works like a social network. I still use Edmodo as a space students can treat as our own safe Facebook. Kids post things they're working on, ask questions, discuss muffins vs. toast as a preferred breakfast carbohydrate, and have real genuine conversations about their projects that I wouldn't get in a contrived, LMS environment.



Instruction

New Google Sites

Google Sites has recently undergone a big overhaul, and the new editor definitely looks a lot nicer than Classic Sites and is much easier to use. Students can select from between six “styles,” which basically determine header appearance, font, and font colors, thus preventing students from going into the technicolor-nightmare-scape of colors images and fonts. While it’s severely restricting in terms of what users can actually build with it, it makes a beautiful website one can use as a portfolio, project website, or even a collaborative workspace. It opens from Drive, so if you have G0Suite for schools, you need to add this to your toobox.

Unity 3d

Unity is one of the most in-demand tech skills and has one of the highest forecasted growth rates, at over 35% over the next two years.Unity offers software licenses at no charge for in-class instruction to qualifying academic institutions at any level. Educators are invited to fill out the online application form on behalf of their institution or program.

 Unity has a wide range of resources for creators at every stage of learning. Te 2D Game Kit alone is worth the price of admission, which is FREE for your classroom if you apply here.

 

It is important that you have decent computers that allow students to save to the HDD. I have students creating some amazing things from scratch, with the 2d and 3d kits, and  with the assets on Open Game Art.

Code.org

Code.org is a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. This resource, unlike pretty much every great educational resource out there keeps getting better and keeps staying free. This puts money-hungry apps like Tynker to shame. At the Middle level, I highly recommend the lab resources:



Swift Playgrounds 

"Swift Playgrounds is a revolutionary iPad app that helps you learn and explore coding in Swift, the same powerful language used to create world-class apps for the App Store. Engaging lessons and challenges help students learn the core concepts of coding by writing real Swift and iOS code in an interactive environment designed for touch." (Apple)

Swift Playgrounds includes interactive lessons that use puzzles and experimentation to teach the following core coding concepts, and more:
  • Commands
  • Functions
  • Parameters
  • Loops
  • Conditional statements
  • Variables
  • Operators
  • Types
  • Initialization
Our High school uses Swift Playgrounds with Parrot Drones to introduce robotics fundamentals before moving on to more advanced topics. It also works with Sphero and a varied of other tools as well.


ARIS

ARIS makes it super easy and intuitive to create location-based games and stories / simulations: One can create mobile games, tours and interactive stories with ARIS games. Players experience a hybrid world of virtual characters and media in physical space.

ARIS used to be a lot more difficult to use. For example, you used to have to "script" your dialog. Now the process is straightforward and graphical. In about a week of working during spare moments at school, I was able to create several random rewards in the form of power scrolls and a few field "bosses" (extra projects) that students can complete to earn extra XP, using the images and resources provided by Classcraft.



ARIS Basics: L0 Trailer from Field Day on Vimeo.

The one issue I've had with ARIS is that it only works on iOS devices and my school won't push the client out to our student iPads anymore because account signup asks for a "selfie". It's hard to believe that this one little word has pretty much forced me to throw out this tool because only students with thier own iPhones can test their games.

TaleBlazer

Developed by the MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP) lab, TaleBlazer allows users to play and make their own location-based mobile games. This is the tool I'm moving to instead of ARIS. Don't get me wrong, If ARIS is the iPad of Location Based Game editors, this is the Linux version. Everything about this requires twice as much effort, looks less polished to the students, and is overall more difficult to get buy-in. However, when you get beyond the crap resources / tutorials, and edu-kitschy look, this is a very robust environment that will allow students to apply what they've learned from Code.org (above) to create custom actions throughout their simulation. This app also has you screenshot your maps and re-embed them, allowing students to use the client off of wifi with only GPS enabled, which is great for our student iPads.


TinkerCAD


Tinkercad is a free online collection of software tools that help people all over the world think, create and make. We’re the ideal introduction to Autodesk, the leader in 3D design, engineering and entertainment software.

In conjunction with Tinkercad, the folks at PrintLab have developed a great (free!) online course that covers 10 essential tips to achieving quality prints on FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) 3D printers. From overhanging features and bridges to wall thicknesses and tolerances, you’ll be sure to find some handy tips to help you get the best possible results from your 3D printer.

There are also some great STEAM projects for students who want to prototype something without have to totally come up with the idea themselves, such as How to Design the Best Wind Farm Blade in Tinkercad, while hopefully learning some really cool useful stuff about engineering, problem solving, design, and Computer Aided Drafting.

Sketchup For Schools

I've used Sketchup Make for a long time in my classroom for designing sustainable homes, urban planning, etc. It's more advanced than Tinkercad and allows students to creat whatever they can concieve without the intense learning curve of SolidWorks or similar software. The thing is, that program came out of a focus on buildings because coming out of Google Earth.

Sketchup for schools, on the other hand, resides in GSuite for education, and focuses on skills for 3d Printing. The built in lessons great, but don't count on using them if your school blocks Vimeo. Come on, Trimble, you're killing me! Put these videos on YouTube like all of your other stuff. 

Intro to 3D printing in SketchUp for Schools from SketchUp on Vimeo.


Honorable Mentions

Gamestar Mechanic

I can't believe this tool is still around and they haven't taken it away yet! Use it while it's still here! There is no better tool for teaching the basics of game design, period.

"Games are a complex system designed around creating an intuitive, immersive, and satisfying user experience. To be successful as game designers, students must approach this complex system holistically. Skill and drill coding exercises and practice will not help here. Students need a solid perspective on systems to design great games and any great interactive experience. This is as important to STEAM as the ability to write solid code" (Me, 2014). Gamestar Mechanic is not only a great tool for teaching these skills, but it is also fun. Your students will love it.


Code Combat

If you're teaching coding of any kind, you need to be letting your kids play Code Combat at least once a week. We do it every Wednesday.

"CodeCombat is a community project,with hundreds of players volunteering to create levels, contribute to our code to add features, fix bugs, playtest, and even translate the game into 50 languages so far"(Code Combat).

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