Techspiration

Evan-Moor's educational technology blog


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The Benefits of Coding for the Whole Learner

This article originally appeared on modernlearners.com.

young coderThe pioneers of the American west moved into a wilderness they didn’t understand, building their homes with new materials and wrangling a landscape full of promise and peril. From their efforts sprang the infrastructure to create communities and towns and cities. They laid the groundwork for the great migration west so that others needn’t be afraid.

Some might say that the new frontier in education is technology. As more and more schools implement hardware and software in the classroom, students are practicing in roles they are familiar with at home: technology users. However, a second movement is growing—that of students as technology producers. And one of the best ways to introduce students to this role is to teach them how to code.

Today’s conversations about bringing programming into the classroom often focus on the benefits of learning a technical skill that is highly desirable in the 21st century job force—and with good reason. According to research posted by Edudemic, computer-related employment will increase by 22% by the year 2020, with the greatest demand being for software developers. In addition, computer programming jobs are growing at a rate of about 2x faster than other jobs.

But the discussion about coding in the classroom is beginning to expand beyond the practical. What programmers already know, and what teachers who embrace coding are beginning to understand, is that programming is a tool that offers a broad range of meta-cognitive skills, from creation and collaboration to problem-solving and logical thinking.

Mitch Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT who developed the programming language Scratch, compared learning to code with learning to read and write. “When you learn to read, you can then read to learn. And it’s the same thing with coding. If you learn to code, you can code to learn.”

Children introduced to coding might initially suffer from fear of the unknown, stepping hesitantly into a world where they believe one wrong move might break the computer. But as they learn how to program, they not only understand how to survive in the landscape of computers; they translate that fear into a powerful sense of autonomy. 

Mark Sawula is a math teacher at Peddie School in Hightstown, NJ. He implements coding in his 9th grade honors geometry class, and for the past few years has been working to create a statistics and data visualization course for 12th graders that mixes statistics and data analysis with programming. Sawula has witnessed a transformation in his students first-hand.

“I remember seeing students who weren’t particularly engaged with math picking up that first processing book, flipping through it and saying, ‘I want to make that,’ or coming up with their own ideas for a visualization or game,” he said. “How often does that happen in a math class? It’s a great vehicle for getting kids to take responsibility for their own learning.”

Students who study programming with Oya Kosebay, a Maker teaching artist for DreamYard in the Bronx, NY, as well an instructor for HTINK and Tech Kids Unlimited, are encouraged to set goals and use logical thinking in order to arrive at their answer. They are pushed to think about detail and to approach a task sequentially, almost as though completing a recipe from a cookbook. But just like in cooking, students who code have the freedom to experiment with new ingredients, or lines of code, within the structure of their “recipe.”

“Different languages are used to develop in different platforms, but they all follow the same basic principles,” said Eric Chavez, a developer for the Superior Court of California, Monterey County. “The only things that differ are some basic functions and syntax. The languages do not have constraints, but some might get you to the finish line faster.”

One of the ways that Kosebay’s students develop logical thinking and problem-solving skills is to figure out which lines of code will produce a more stable product. In order to arrive at their goal, students must come up with an initial solution, test it, recognize faults, add something that’s missing, or subtract something that’s not working until a final solution can be reached. This requires a lot of trial and error and, yes, even failure.

“So many times I see that schools give specific tasks to students that do not require them to think,” said Kosebay. “I think because of the nature of coding—you try things out, you fail, you try again, and finally make it work—it gives a sense of independence and accomplishment in something that not everybody can do.”

Besides learning how to problem-solve and think logically, students who code must learn how to work as a team and communicate with one another effectively. Contrary to the popular stereotype of the lone programmer tucked away in a dungeon office, coding often requires high levels of collaboration in order to be effective. More often than not, teams of developers work together to build a product or a platform, and in order to be successful, they must strategize their approach.

“One thing we use in the classroom is the ‘Ask three, then me’ approach,” said Kosebay. “Ask someone sitting next to you the question instead of raising your hand and asking the teacher. While kids are articulating the question to their friend, they figure out what to do.” Kosebay says that she utilizes this philosophy because having students explain their approach to one another helps to strengthen their own understanding of the process.

As educators learn more about the cognitive benefits of coding, there has been a push to implement the computer science course in the curriculum of K–12 schools. Legislatures in the U.S. and the UK are already taking action. In September 2014, England implemented mandatory coding classes in schools at all grade levels. And U.S. Representative Tony Cardenas has introduced a bill which would allocate grants for schools to teach programming as early as kindergarten.

Despite the endorsements from government officials, many schools are still faced with barriers for full-scale implementation. At the administrative level, weak technological infrastructure, lack of funding, and time constraints make it difficult to add coding to the curriculum. However, fear also plays a large part in educators’ resistance to bringing programming into their schools.

“It’s a lot of work to get up to speed in coding, so that’s a barrier for most,” said Sawula. “And many don’t see the potential for coding in their own disciplines, so they see this push as being part of an education hype cycle initiated by people who aren’t teachers and don’t understand the nature of school…I think there’s some truth to all of these reservations, but I still think it’s obvious that coding and computational thinking has to become a bigger part of the curriculum eventually. It’s the good fight.”

Teachers needn’t be expert programmers in order to give students the opportunity to create using code. By giving students the foundation and allowing them to instruct one another, they are already priming children with the tools necessary to become successful in programming, and by extension, many other areas of life. If students spend more time coding in the classroom, they have the opportunity to stumble across something new, usable, creative, and disruptive. They can not only change their own thinking, but also build something that could change the world as we know it.


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Why Classroom Tech Matters Right Now

tablet next to other school toolsWhen the Common Core Standards were launched in 2009, one of the stipulations was that students take assessment tests in an online format by 2015. The time is now upon us, and reports on practice tests are streaming in. The outlook: shaky, at best.

Leaving content aside, many schools experienced technological problems that made administering the practice tests challenging. Ohio, one of the first states to begin testing, started practice PARCC tests in February. In the first month of testing, Pearson fielded nearly 10,000 phone calls, emails, and texts—86 percent of which were related to problems registering students and getting them into the online sessions. According to the Columbus Dispatch:

Some students experienced long wait times before they could start a test. Some couldn’t log in at all. A handful were booted out of the test before they finished. Exams crashed on certain Web browsers. Some districts reported that Chromebook computers struggled to support some tests.

Yet several of the problems of the online tests extend beyond the control of the testing companies themselves. Many schools lack the infrastructure to support school-wide online testing. Hardware and software are not the only problem; it’s also bandwidth. At California’s Natomas School District, teachers couldn’t administer the tests in adjoining classrooms without causing the computers to crash, so the district scheduled online tests in every other classroom.

Education technology advocate Evan Marwell says, “The typical U.S. school has the same bandwidth as a four- to five-person home—even though the average school has 600 students. Internet access and speed that adults take for granted at work isn’t available to our kids, even as education content just keeps getting better.” And, according to Marwell, low-poverty schools are three times more likely to have broadband than schools with high rates of poverty.

But even with smooth implementation of the testing software, schools have other concerns about students’ ability to be successful in an online testing environment. Online testing requires a set of skills that are not always taught in a structured setting: digital literacy.

Many students lack the technology skills necessary to understand the interface of the test and how to operate certain controls. At Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, California, testing coordinator Kim Estrada observed large gaps in students’ technological fluency. “Some kids didn’t even know how to find the on and off switch or how the touch screen worked,” she says.

Estrada notes that the tests require students to know how to drag and drop, plot points on a graph, and have strong typing skills for completing essays. In addition, Allan Miedema, technology director of the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington, says that students should have familiarity with key layout (especially delete, arrow keys, and the space bar), how to select text, and how to operate drop-down menus. For a student with no access to a computer or a tablet at home, these are fairly sophisticated skills.

So how should schools manage preparing their students for an online testing environment, besides attempting to iron out implementation issues? According to Jon Cohen, executive vice president for the nonprofit organization American Institutes for Research (AIR) and director of the Assessment Program, one way to ease the transition to online testing is to adapt the test to the students and their environment. An example of this would be to integrate the test into the regular classroom schedule. This would allow schools to stay open during testing times and would also help combat student fatigue. Teachers could stop the test when needed and pick it back up again at a convenient time in the future—within the test parameters—until all of the students finished.

However, that doesn’t solve the issue of lack of digital literacy skills in the general student body. While giving the students more time helps release the pressure of testing in a new space, it doesn’t necessarily allow students to learn the technological skills necessary for the test—and for the working world—in an organic environment. This is why classroom technology matters right now. It’s a matter of familiarizing students with the digital space so that it becomes as second nature to them as using a pencil or pen. And kids do not pick up a pencil and pen and just start writing on their own. They are taught how to do so.

Classroom technology is not just a passing educational trend, or a way to keep students engaged by meeting them on “their turf.” Statistics make it clear that even the so-called “digital native” generation needs classroom training in digital literacy. Just because a child can swipe through her mom’s iPad or play video games with dad, doesn’t make her computer literate. It doesn’t give her proficiency in web navigation and internet research. It doesn’t mean she can understand the interface of different operating systems and browsers. It doesn’t develop visual fluency in the digital space—skills that are necessary in order to recognize, for example, an appropriate response when faced with a single-answer radio button vs. a multiple-answer check box during an online test. 

Digital Literacy example: Do your students visually recognize that a round circle indicates a single answer only, and that a square indicates that there could be more than one answer?

Do your students visually recognize that a circle indicates only a single answer is allowed, and that a square indicates that there could be more than one answer? How could this type of visual fluency in the digital space support your student outcomes?

Online testing aside, these are literacy skills children will need to develop in order to effectively navigate in the digital space.

There’s always been culture shock when students leave the shelter of academia for the real world. However, the gap between what students learn in school and what is needed in the real world has never been wider. Digital literacy is literacy. And the United States is falling way behind the rest of the world. Classroom technology should be a priority in our children’s education—the infrastructure, the hardware, the software, and the skills. And the time for action is now.

Interested in integrating the development of digital literacy across the curriculum? Find out how with Portals School.
Sign-up for a free trial of Evan-Moor’s Portals School today.


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5 Educational Apps That Enhance Learning

I have a confession—I am super picky about what my kids watch on TV and which apps they play. I know how important it is for kids to be actively playing, creatively thinking, and exploring and making discoveries. So when I tell you these five apps really enhance learning, it is a great compliment.

One of the reasons these apps are so successful is that my kids beg me to play them. High motivation + fun challenges = quality learning.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Here are my top five favorite educational apps.

Letter School

letterschool

This is the best app I have found for teaching handwriting. Parents or teachers can choose traditional font or D’Nealian font. Students practice both upper and lower case letters, as well as numbers. What I like about this app is that students are taught the proper places to begin and form their letters. My kids like how there are three engaging levels of practice with each letter. You can download a free trial for a few letters before buying the full app.

Splash Math

SplashMathThis app offers math games by a single grade level or in a bundle of grades K–5. One of my favorite things about this app is many mathematic skills are addressed, such as addition, subtraction, measurement, data and graphs, time, money, and geometry. My kids enjoy the format of the game and the rewards they earn for completing each level. A bonus feature of this game is that I get a weekly email to let me know exactly how my child performed at each level, as well as how much time was spent playing each day or week.

Reading Rainbow

rrkidzLevar Burton is back with a wonderful app for kids of all ages. Children can choose five books at a time to keep in their “backpack.” There are videos from the Reading Rainbow TV show that accompany several books. My kids enjoy the interaction within the books by tapping the illustrations for a little animation. The books are organized by genre and can be viewed by visiting each genre’s island. The app scores bonus points for the partnership with National Geographic Kids for wonderful non-fiction books, too.

Barefoot World Atlas

worldatlasBarefoot Books has put together quite an impressive app to teach kids about geography and world cultures in fun, easy-to-understand ways. My child is learning native music and animals from regions all over the world. Students can read facts about each country to gain even more knowledge. Although I have not yet explored the new add-on packs that were recently released, the basic app pack is meeting my younger children’s needs. We will definitely explore the add-on packs when we are ready for them. Also, I should mention that Barefoot Books has a World Atlas hardcover book that is already well-worn at our house.

Bilingual Child (Spanish)

bilingual childThe design of this app is ideal for a child learning a new language. The child is told to find an object named in Spanish (for example, a cow, or vaca) and drag it to a square. While it sounds simple, my children are engaged and enjoy working through the various categories to add to their Spanish vocabulary. There is an option to hear directions only in Spanish or with both English and Spanish. The games can be played quickly, and the music is just the right tempo to keep a child both calm and interested. The categories we purchased include animals, colors, numbers, shapes, body, face, transportation, and clothes. I have found it to be a bargain to learn so many words in a fun way.

I have ONE MORE bonus app that I’d really like to share.

Monkey MathSchool Sunshine

Monkey-Math-School-sunshine1Even when my kids had mastered the skill levels of this app, they still asked to play the beach-themed “Monkey Math.” Designed for pre-school and kindergarten-aged children, the engagement level is quite high and keeps kids focused on patterns, shapes, less/more, number order, add/subtract, connect the dots, and number writing. The child can earn graphics to add to his or her aquarium. The playful monkey and his crab friends keep the kids wanting to play while they learn. Parents have options to set the difficulty for each child as well.

Now it’s your turn! What is your favorite app that enhances your child’s learning? Please share in the comments so we can help build a list of great options for kids!


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Using Minecraft to Meet Learning Objectives

MinecraftIf you ask a group of 30 elementary to middle school children what their favorite video game is, chances are a large percentage of them will answer: Minecraft. Minecraft is a sandbox construction game. In order to survive in this online word, players “mine” or harvest materials such as wood, stone, and ore to build objects. These objects have certain properties depending on the crafting recipe and the materials used. More importantly, however, you can stack the stuff you mine into amazingly complex shapes, allowing you to build tall towers, sprawling cities, and even whole worlds.

With its open-ended, crafting environment, Minecraft encourages active learning through critical thinking and creative problem-solving. There is no doubt that it has the potential to be very useful in education, but can it be successful? In order to be successful, classroom tools require not only a well-designed environment, but an inspired and forward-thinking teacher who has the capability to provide concrete, measurable learning outcomes.

Earlier this month, an article was published in The Atlantic about the educational value of Minecraft, focusing on the efforts of former teacher Joel Levin, who along with his colleagues founded a startup called TeacherGaming that aims to bring gaming into classrooms everywhere. TeacherGaming produces MinecraftEdu, a Minecraft module that allows teachers to use school-ready versions of the game or easily create their own modifications. Prior to Levin’s efforts, many teachers had already been using Minecraft as an educational tool, but in order to tailor it to the classroom, they had to reprogram the game themselves. Now they are able to make simple adjustments using check boxes instead of code. MinecraftEdu currently has 30 million downloads worldwide.

The PBS Idea Channel published an episode of the benefits of teaching with Minecraft, highlighting the game’s sandbox concept, which enables teachers to not only teach cross-curricular subjects from physics and engineering to history and foreign languages, but also allow students to problem-solve and work as a team. The game’s flexibility and ability for improvisation also allow for many teachable moments in the classroom. Take a look:

Overwhelming, the response to bringing Minecraft into the classroom has been positive. Many parents and students are finding the game a useful, engaging learning tool that is inspiring them to develop digital fluency, engage in digital citizenship, and understand, create, and critique the systems we live in.

Yet with so many school districts under pressure to adhere to Common Core Standards and drive up test scores, will a game like Minecraft be able to be utilized? Minecraft as a classroom resource has proven that it has enormous benefits for teachers that choose to incorporate it into their lesson plans, but in order for it to become a viable option in education as a whole, it must concretely demonstrate how it addresses student mastery of curricular objectives. In the Atlantic story, Levin admitted that MinecraftEdu doesn’t perfectly align with Common Core, but that innovative teachers have found their own solutions using the game to meet their requirements. According to the article:

“TeacherGaming does have curriculum, we have Minecraft ‘worlds’ that you can download and use in your own classroom, but teachers didn’t want to download what we were making—they wanted to make their own experiences,” Levin said. History teachers make Minecraft dioramas, English teachers have kids act out Shakespeare plays in a model of the Globe Theater, and art teachers let students recreate famous works of art in the game. Now, Levin says that teachers have created 98 percent of the downloadable “worlds” in the MinecraftEdu forum.

Minecraft as an educational tool is only beginning to be explored, but the possibilities are literally endless. If inventive teachers and developers like TeacherGaming are able to incorporate more concrete learning objectives into their Minecraft worlds, there’s no telling where this game and other similar platforms will take the world of education.


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The State of Internet Access in the United States

fast internet signIn the State of the Union speech last week, President Obama told his audience, “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

His comments come in the face of potentially paradigm-altering changes in the way our country accesses and uses its most important technology tool. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will distribute a set of rules to FCC commissioners on February 5 that could deliver far-reaching impacts on net neutrality, including reclassifying broadband Internet service as a public utility. This would subject Internet service providers to the same regulations as phone companies, with the aim of shrinking the digital divide and ensuring that everyone has the same access to free content online.

Each year, the FCC is required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to release a report that assesses whether or not “advanced telecommunications capability [i.e., broadband or high-speed access] is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” If this is not happening, the act instructs the FCC to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

In its latest report, the FCC found that “broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, especially in rural areas, on Tribal lands, and in U.S. Territories.” According to the FCC, only 1 percent of rural Americans have gained access to broadband at the current minimum speeds of 4Mbps since 2011. Even less have access to speeds of 25Mbps, which is what Wheeler is proposing as the new definition for broadband.

While changing the definition of broadband does not legally require Internet service providers to make changes, it does lower the percentage of Americans who have “broadband,” and results in a sort of public shaming of providers who don’t offer those speeds to their customers.

Not surprisingly, major Internet service providers strongly oppose both reclassifying broadband as a utility and redefining its speed, arguing that it could kill jobs and discourage them from investing in infrastructure. In addition, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association told the FCC that 25Mbps/3Mbps is way too high for the average American broadband user. However, several other industrialized nations offer much higher download speeds at a fraction of the cost. For example, the fastest service offered by Comcast, the largest Internet provider in the United States, is 305Mbps for $320 per month. In comparison, customers in Hong Kong pay their providers only $25 per month to receive 500Mbps.

Despite claims by service providers that higher speeds and regulation are unnecessary and potentially damaging to the industry, quite the opposite is true for education. Without equal access to high-speed Internet, students in schools that lack funding and infrastructure face a barrier to entry in the professional world. Lydia Dobyns, President and CEO of New Tech Network, writes for Huffington Post:

This is especially true for rural communities where students do not have the opportunity to travel far from home or experience diverse cultures. Broadband access allows these students to step outside of the classroom and outside of their community. Without high-speed Internet, these schools have little chance of offering the quality of education their “wired” counterparts enjoy.

Technology is not a “silver bullet,” but it can be a great equalizer. If the FCC does end up reclassifying broadband as a public utility at 25Mbps, then Internet service providers will have more incentives to supply classrooms with affordable, higher-speed Internet access, which can allow students to remote collaborate on projects, form online support groups and communities, videoconference with teachers, or experience realtime video exploration of areas across the globe.

The FCC is set to vote on Wheeler’s proposed rules on February 26. Here’s hoping they recognize the benefit of better Internet access and speeds not only for the country’s consumers, but also—and especially—for its students.


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Evan-Moor Joins Educational Technology Leaders in Signing Student Privacy Pledge

student privacyEvan-Moor Educational Publishers announced today that it has signed the Student Privacy Pledge sponsored by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and the Future of Privacy Forum. Evan-Moor joins other notable K–12 technology pioneers such as Follett, Edmodo, and Microsoft.

“Evan-Moor’s digital 1:1 solutions have been built around protecting student privacy from the beginning. We do not store any identifying student information—including student names—and passwords and data are encrypted,” said Bill Evans, CEO of Evan-Moor Educational Publishers. “In signing the pledge, Evan-Moor is reaffirming our commitment to student privacy and letting our school partners, families, and students know that student privacy is a top priority.”

The Student Privacy Pledge aims to safeguard student privacy regarding the collection, maintenance, and use of student personal information. The pledge will hold school service providers accountable to:

  • Not sell student information
  • Not behaviorally target advertising
  • Use data for authorized educational purposes only
  • Not change privacy policies without notice and choice
  • Enforce strict limits on data retention
  • Support parental access to their children’s information and enable parents to correct errors in the information
  • Provide comprehensive security standards
  • Be transparent about collection and use of data

“The potential of using student data to drive effective instruction and personalize education is promising,” said U.S. Representative Jared Polis (CO). “While there can be tremendous benefits from this data, we must ensure that there are appropriate safeguards to protect student privacy. I am pleased that these companies have taken an important step in making a commitment to parents, educators, and communities. This voluntary pledge can help address parents’ legitimate concerns about privacy issues and help keep us on track towards new and exciting educational developments for all students.”

For a detailed description of the pledge, including notes, restrictions, and definitions, read the full privacy pledge here.


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Classroom Tech Trends for 2015

computer campIt’s hard to believe that it’s 2015 already—the year in which Back to the Future Part II took place, and angsty teens traveled by hoverboards and wore self-lacing sneakers. Midway through the second decade of the millennium, we’ve witnessed an onslaught of technological transformations that were mere fantasy at the end of the 20th century.

2014 brought us wearables, larger and more powerful smart phones, augmented reality, virtual reality, 3D printing, and robotics. Some of these items are making their way into the classroom, but they are still experimental, fringe. Widespread use of these types of tech are a long way away, if they ever do take hold in education.

However, there are two major technology trends to keep an eye on for 2015 that may have far-reaching implications.

Hardware Choices

Large scale technology implementation issues are still plaguing our education system. After the high-profile failure of LAUSD’s billion-dollar iPad project, schools considering bringing tablets into the classroom may be wary to pull the trigger. In fact, tablet sales plateaued last year, with experts citing lower processing power and expensive data plans as the reason. In addition, iPads are an expensive option for schools, costing more than $700 a piece, with an additional $200 for 3-year curriculum programs.

Which is why many schools seem to be turning to Google’s Chromebooks for their hardware needs. In the third quarter of 2014, Chromebooks surpassed iPads in school sales for the first time. Chromebooks fitted with curriculum are also $100-$200 less than iPads, an attractive option for districts with less technology funding. In addition, Chromebooks seem to offer more flexible options for the classroom. For example, a charter school network in Los Angeles found that using the internet and cloud-based programs on Chromebooks allowed for more versatility. By contrast, iPads supply much more structured and directed apps.

What’s clear is that tech firms are still in a race to get a toehold in the education marketplace, while educators continue to contemplate which devices work best for education outcomes. Will this be the year that things finally stabilize? Or will a new technology add further disruption to the landscape?

Common Core Testing

Another story that’s bound to make waves in 2015 is the first round of high-stakes online testing for Common Core that will take place in April. States that have adopted Common Core are required to move their standardized testing to the digital format this year. This has brought on increased push-back from teachers and parents against PARCC and SBAC, the two major consortiums who received funding from the Obama administration to develop online assessment tests.

Critics of both PARCC and SBAC note that poor design, ease-of-use issues, and time constraints have combined to make tests less effective indicators of student progress than the current assessment tests being used.

Concerns are especially high for PARCC. In 2010, there were 26 states aligned with the consortium. Now there are only 12 (plus the District of Columbia). It is unclear if all 12 of those states will use the exam this year. In addition, parents can legally withhold their children from taking the tests. In New York alone, an estimated 55,000-60,000 students opted out of the tests last year.

Problems with online assessment tests bring into sharper focus the continued issues with the Common Core standards. Some states, such as Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, have pulled out of Common Core altogether. Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia may be joining them. In addition, there’s been a strong outcry from parents, especially against the Common Core math standards, which they say are far too complex and convoluted, especially for younger students.

So what does this mean for Common Core in 2015? Teachers, parents, and administrators should be on the lookout to see the impact of the first official online tests on the overall acceptance of Common Core. Will success in the tests ease concerns? Or, if too many students fail, will there be a push to roll back the tests and the standards altogether?

Either way, it’s clear that 2015 will be a pivotal year for technology in education. We’re looking forward to bringing you our perspective on trends, best practice, and policy changes throughout the year!


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Join the Hour of Code

lines of codeThe Hour of Code, a global movement participated in by millions of students, is set to launch this year December 8–14 during Computer Science Education Week.

What exactly is the Hour of Code? It’s a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed in order to demystify programming and show people that anyone can learn the basics of coding. The event doesn’t take place at a specific hour—teachers and students can practice programming for one hour anytime during the week.

The event is organized by Code.org, a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing involvement by women and students of color. Partners for the event include Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, the Boys and Girls Club of America, and the College Board.

Teachers can register to host an Hour of Code event in their classrooms or as an extra-curricular activity. Code.org has compiled a How-to Guide in order to help teachers get ready for the event. Simple hour-long tutorials are available that allow for minimal prep-time for teachers. In addition, the tutorials are self-guided, which means that students can work at their own pace and skill-level. Introductory videos starring Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and President Obama are also available in order to inspire students before kicking off the event.

The Hour of Code doesn’t need to be a teacher-hosted event. Students can participate on their own by following the various tutorials, from a Frozen-themed coding guide to a game designed to help students learn Python and Javascript by defeating ogres.

Will you be participating in the Hour of Code next week? If so, tell us about your plans and let us know how it goes!


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The Importance of Responsivity for Classroom Tech

boy frustrated by laptopEvery teacher’s worst nightmare when it comes to digital classroom materials is having technical difficulties—the software might not load, the hardware might need an unexpected update, the Internet might be clogged up by too many users trying to access the broadband. However, one glitch that could be just as dangerous to the learning process is a program that is too slow in responding to students’ commands.

In fact, when it comes to interactive content, the difference between keeping students engaged and frustrating them into detachment is a matter of a blink of an eye.

In an article for 360blog, Scott Traylor warned app developers that slow response time could represent complete disengagement for a child:

So what’s the one item that will make or break your app? Responsivity…if the app does not respond immediately to a child’s request, usually in the form of a tap on a screen, your product is dead. It won’t be used. End of story. The time you have to successfully respond to a child’s request can be measured in milliseconds.

Elements that impact responsivity include hardware (the computers or tablets), software (the programs/apps themselves), and the technical infrastructure at your school.

Starting with hardware, one of the more popular tools being used in the classroom are tablets. The response time of just the hardware component of various tablets varies by only milliseconds, but as Traylor points out, each and every fraction of a second counts in keeping students’ attention.

Tablet Response time (in milliseconds)
Apple iPad Mini 75 milliseconds
Apple iPad (4th generation) 81 milliseconds
Microsoft Surface RT 95 milliseconds
Amazon Kindle Fire 114 milliseconds
Samsung Galaxy Tab 168 milliseconds

source: 360kid

As for computers and laptops, the main feature responsible for speed is the CPU (Central Processing Unit). The power of the CPU is measured in gigahertz (gHz). The higher the number of gHz, the more powerful the processor of the computer. And the more powerful the processor is, the faster the computer will run. Other factors that can increase responsivity in computer hardware are its RAM (Random Access Memory) and whether or not the device includes an SSD (Solid State Drive).

As for software—whether its an app for a tablet or a larger software program for a desktop computer—elements such as graphics, video, and audio can contribute to slower speeds. If you were to combine an older computer with less processing power along with a large software program full of video and audio components, you would likely experience many stalls in your classroom.

So how can teachers ensure that the technology they choose for their classroom is responsive? Technology coordinators and school administrators should be taking a close look at the processing power of the hardware that they choose. Then, when selecting programs for content, look for reviews on responsivity. Children’s Technology Review measures the responsivity of each activity of the apps it covers. You might also look for customer reviews on iTunes that speak of slow loading times or kids experiencing frustration when interactive activities don’t respond.

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire way to guarantee an app will always be responsive 100% of the time. A school’s technological infrastructure, especially if the app is web-based, can slow down an otherwise high-performing tablet and app. Teachers should try and test their programs before class begins to check for slow loading times. If the program is being sluggish, be prepared to intervene with interesting activities to keep kids engaged while the app is “thinking.” If you can fill in those milliseconds with thought-provoking questions—even “What do you think is causing this app to be slow?”—then you will prevent children from disengaging and help ensure the digital materials are successful.


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6 Tips for Using Video Games in the Classroom

MinecraftThere are many advantages to using video games in the classroom. Games can increase engagement, improve meta-cognitive skills, and even boost student achievement. If you are considering bringing video games into your class, here are a few practical tips to get started.

1. Plan Your Pedagogical Approach

Before you consider which games to bring into the classroom, it’s important to think about how you will fit them into your curriculum. Will you use the game for just one day or across several lessons? Are you looking for subject-specific or cross-curricular games? Do you want games that can be played individually, or those that require collaboration? Think about what you’d like to achieve before you select the games to play.

Another important consideration is the learning outcome of the game. What do you hope your students will accomplish by playing? Will there be scoring involved? Will you incorporate the game into a project-based learning environment? Perhaps after playing through the game, you’ll have students write a report on its mechanics or storyline. You could also introduce the game and then, after students play, ask them how it relates to a certain theme you are studying.

2. Consider Your Platform

What hardware do you have available in your school? Do you have a PC computer lab? Tablets? BYOD? The type of hardware you have will drive your decision-making for the types of games you’d like to have students play.

If you have several different platforms to choose from, consider which will benefit your students the most. Tablets have touch interface, which provides kinesthetic learning experiences for students, and there are multitudes of educational games to choose from in various app stores (though the majority of these games are aimed at younger students). With PC gaming, you might have more elaborate gameplay ranging from graphically complex strategy games to open sandbox world-building.

3. Finding the Right Game

There are so many games out there—how is a teacher supposed to know where to begin? Several resources are dedicated to reviewing games for their educational content. Common Sense Media has a comprehensive game rating and review system. Children’s Technology Review surveys commercial digital products (including games and hardware) for kids ages infant through 15. Moms With Apps provides a parenting perspective on the best apps for kids. Take a look at some of these site’s recommendations, and when it doubt, referrals from other teachers and parents can always steer you in the right direction.

4. Get to Know the Game

Before you unleash a game on your students, you should know how to play it yourself. Play the game repeatedly, thoroughly; become a pro. Research the game to find out if there are any cheats or shortcuts. (You can purchase strategy guides or walkthroughs for many games. Study these guides to learn the ins and outs of the game.) Take notes on potential snags for implementing the game in your classroom, opportunities for differentiated learning, or challenges it might present to your students.

5. Classroom Management

While bringing games into the classroom can increase engagement, the added excitement can easily disrupt students’ focus. Keep students on task by asking questions throughout the lesson, staying mobile, or even playing along with them. You might consider timed activities, such as trying to reach a certain milestone within 15 minutes. You could also offer small rewards to students with the highest scores. (Low-risk competition is a great motivator).

6. Technical Support

Games can glitch, hardware updates can cause problems, and if you’re playing a web-based game, Internet connectivity can be spotty. Anytime you’re using tech in the classroom, it’s a good idea to have an IT person on standby and paper-and-pencil activities ready just in case the technology decides it’s not going to cooperate. Nominating a student IT helper (especially one familiar with the game) can also keep things running smoothly.

Additional Resources

For more information on bringing video games into the classroom, check out these resources.

Edutopia: Game-Based Learning Resource Roundup

MindShift’s Guide to Games and Learning

Forbes: Here’s Why We Need Video Games in Every Classroom

And for additional inspiration, check out how some teachers, such as Joel Levin at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in NYC, are successfully implementing video games in their classroom.