Category: robotics

Does Educational Technology Matter?

Over the Thanksgiving break, multiple family road trips served as good opportunities to catch up on some audio books that I’ve been carrying around in my phone for the past year or so (My family might question this, but I’m driving, and they have their own headsets, so…). Once book I’ve been listening to is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. It is an interesting read/listen, if a bit repetitive at times. I have long believed that  vision was the best motivator of people, and Sinek shares many examples of groups where shared vision nurtured great accomplishment and sustained success. While primarily focused on business, the importance of understanding our why might be even more important in education. Our best schools and best educators are certainly not motivated by money or fame, after all. There is something more intrinsic and powerful that makes great teachers get to school early, stay late, create colorful and engaging learning environments, lend an ear to a student in crisis, continue to learn and grow professionally, put up with the tests and budget cuts, etc.

The book prompted me to do some reflecting on why I work as an educator and digital learning leader. Educational technology has been a source of some debate for many years. Research has, frankly, painted widely varying views of the educational impact and value of investing in computers, iPads, software, peripherals, etc. Entire schools have been set up as computer-free zones. Classroom technology and infrastructure funding are annually sources of debate and always on the chopping block. Still, technology integration remains something that some of us passionately promote at staff meetings, conferences, professional learning sessions, in social media, and even over family dinners. Here are my whys, which happily made a convenient acronym, CORE, and everyone loves acronyms!

  • Creativity — technologies offer countless opportunities for students to create.  Creativity is demonstrated and strengthened through producing an imaginative multimedia presentation or video, writing an original program, constructing a robot, or designing a 3D prototype. The most powerful moments I have witnessed involving educational technologies are those where original ideas became concrete products. Importantly, creative thinking transfers to almost all areas of life, whether solving a problem at work, fixing a car, raising a child, etc.  The creative processes of imagining something, making it, evaluating its quality, troubleshooting, and making needed improvements  are vital to our students’ future success, and technology is a valuable partner in their development.
  • Opportunity.  Whether a geek or a caveman, it is impossible to deny with sincerity or credibility the importance of some level of technological proficiency in the home, workspace, etc. Students who graduate without being able to use multiple tools and platforms are immediately at a disadvantage to more experienced peers, whether in the college classroom or the workplace. It is my goal for our Matador students to be exposed to a wide range of technology tools and, when possible, to master them. The opportunity to use these tools also opens students’ eyes and minds to future learning and working opportunities that they might have never considered or imagined. In short, I don’t want any of my Matadors to be limited in life by a lack of experiences while a student here.
  • Relevance. Used well and appropriately, educational technologies make learning immediately more relevant to students and the way they live. For example, a teacher could take students to the library or refer them to the class encyclopedia or dictionary to conduct research. I have heard teachers express that students need to know “how to do it the old fashioned way.” I have never churned butter, and it hasn’t once kept me from putting too much on my pancakes. I won’t argue against library research skills, but for most of us, research happens in the palm of our hands or sitting in front of a monitor. Name an elementary or middle school research topic, and a student can find an informative and suitable Youtube video in seconds (something they usually didn’t need a teacher to learn). Ed tech is comfortable and familiar to students, and the actions and products created reflect what they are doing and making outside of school. T
  • Engagement. My 3rd grade teacher’s biases aside, I have always found that happy students are more effective learners. Students faced with interesting, relevant, and challenging learning tasks  engage deeply and, therefore, learn better. Technology alone does not guarantee engaged kids. However, when technology is a part of a powerful, creative learning experience, and when it is a tool for creatively sharing ideas or projects, engagement soars. While “fun” should not be confused with engagement, students’ affinities for technologies make learning tasks less tedious, resulting in greater effort and stamina. The engagement effects can be especially significant for populations most at risk.

It should be mentioned that I don’t spend a lot of time promoting or supporting prescriptive technologies or software. I do recognize the value or place for some of these. However, specialized math tutorials, reading programs, commercial assessments, and similar technologies are simply too narrow in focus to fit the CORE reasoning behind what I do, and subject area specialists are often best suited to make those choices. For them, an important why might involve a student mastering multiplication facts or understanding context clues. My work necessitates that I focus on tools and strategies that have broader, more open-ended impact, and my whys reflect this.

It is also significant that I do not see high test scores as a worthy why or goal for using educational technologies. In my experience, effective, engaging learning experiences produce students more than capable of handling the tests. I wanted my students to truly lose themselves in the learning, and that is impossible if our why is just a  test. Tests are not a why that kids will share, and learning will suffer.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts. What are your whys? Leave your comments below. 🙂

New Podcast: #30: What’s On the Horizon?

This (long-delayed) episode of the Moss Free Show discusses the six educational technology tools identified by the authors of the 2017 Horizon Report K12 edition as having immediate or imminent 2-5 years) impact on teaching and learning. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the identified technologies, or did they miss something more significant?

Listen to “#30: What’s On the Horizon?” on Spreaker.

Introduction to Robotics, Semester 2 Plans

Our first middle school robotics courses got rolling back in August. It has been a learning experience, but it has mostly been very positive. The curriculum from Carnegie Mellon University via  Robomatter has been very successful. Teachers have sorted out management of robots, charging, etc. Assessment was a concern at first, as our district requires a minimum number of daily and major grades. Those concerns have been addressed by having students complete the curriculum lessons/quizzes, complete frequent reflection tasks in engineering journals, and assessment of completed projects. As for students , they have struggled nicely at times, but for the most part have fought through glitches and design errors to create a variety of successful robots.

A surprise was sprung upon us when we learned that students who are currently enrolled in the course will be allowed to take it for another semester. While this is exciting, it is a challenge, because we don’t have a year’s worth of curriculum materials. So we are having to do a little scrambling. What we are planning to do is to make the class more of a project based, independent learning course for the students who took it in the first semester. I am working to prepare a list of resources and project prompts, with students also having the flexibility to design their own projects. Embedded below is the working document, which will see lots of updates in the coming weeks. Feel free to borrow, and any suggestions are very welcome. I anticipate projects will last anywhere from a couple of days to a month or more, depending upon complexity.

Imagine: Seguin ISD Technology and Innovation Celebration 2015

Imagine: SISD Technology & Innovation Celebration by randyrodgers on GoAnimate

Growing Genius

I had the great pleasure of working at and attending the 2015 TCEA convention last week in Austin. The week was something of a blur, but it was and always has been such a re-charger for me. The professional conversations, in particular, always leave me flush with new ideas and possibilities.

A wonderful highlight was the closing speaker for the week, Arizona educator Fredi Lajvardi. Fredi and his students are the subject of a movie, Spare Parts, and a documentary, Underwater Dreams. The films both tell the story of a group of students that in 2004 approached Fredi about starting a robotics team. The team goes on to shockingly knock off college teams in national robotics competitions, including powerhouse MIT. The best part of the story is that these students are not the types of kids most people would look at as technological and engineering wonderkids. Students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, where Fredi teaches, are predominantly poor, hispanic, and often cannot speak fluent English. Many are the children of undocumented immigrants. Fredi’s talk was raw and authentic. He passionately described the challenges his kids and team faced and proudly shared their moments of triumph. He was especially proud of the incredible list of achievements his former students had compiled and the legacies they were creating.

UNDERWATER DREAMS – Trailer – 2-2014 from 50EGGS on Vimeo.

Fredi hit on so many critical points, and his students’ experiences spoke volumes about what we do and do not do in our schools. A few of the points that stuck out most vividly to me are:

1. Students drive. The original idea for the robotics team came not from administrative mandates or Fredi himself, but from students. The results were levels of engagement and dedication rarely seen in classrooms.

2. Failure is a step. Students encountered many, many struggles and failures, such as a leaking robot on competition day. They rallied around these problems, though, and turned them into productive failures through re-design, creativity, and innovative solutions (such as using a tampon’s absorbent materials to solve the problem of the leak).

3. Aim higher. Fredi stated that his team decided to compete against college teams, because they wanted to learn from the best. This is an example of setting genuinely high expectations in a powerful and meaningful context, and it motivated students to achieve. Simply tossing around terms like “higher standards”, “rigor”, etc. can and will NEVER accomplish this drive to succeed.

4. Thinking beats memorizing. Fredi stated, “Focus should be on process, not content. Google has all the content we need.” Memorizing facts is great for standardized tests, but thinking is great for real life tests. We continue to languish under a system that is a relic from the 19th century, when it was dictated that memorizing certain facts in 5 core areas made a person successful. Clearly we still aren’t thinking, or we would have seen the folly of this decades ago. As Roger Schank writes in Teaching Minds, “Memorization has nothing to do with learning, unless you want to become a singer.”

The most beautiful thing about hearing stories like that of Fredi and his students is how vividly they illustrate just what our kids can do when the opportunity is presented to them. When they can be in control of real, exciting, challenging learning experiences, barriers like poverty, language, ethnicity, family situations, etc. can be smashed as students rocket skyward. This is a useful reminder of what needs to drive me daily.

One last point. I noticed that Fredi never once mentioned his students’ test scores. Instead, he talked about his former kids’ engineering degrees, non-profit foundations, startup companies, and new families. He talked like a proud dad or friend. While it is practically impossible to precisely quantify the effects of the robotics program and Fredi on these student outcomes, it is reasonable to assume that the impact was far more significant than even the best test prep program has ever achieved. If we must have standards (The talking heads all say we do.), isn’t this the type of standard we should be judged by–the legacy and life-impact our classes have on our students?

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