Saturday, November 8, 2014

My Own “Hole in the Wall”


Sugata Mitra is one of my favorite educational researchers and presenters.  I was intrigued by this thought:

There will always be places in the world where good schools don't exist and good teachers don't want to go, not just in the developing world but in places of socioeconomic hardship.

His 2010 TED talk does a pretty good job of explaining his “Hole in the Wall” experiment on children self-organizing and learning, with the aid of a computer, and no adult intervention.  I strongly recommend his thought provoking and highly entertaining TED talk.

Pretty cool stuff.

Some members of CUEBC, the Computer Using Educators of BC, a provincial specialist association here in my home province, would like to revive the “hour of code” or other approaches  to get the average student interested, or at least aware of, computer programming.  This gave me an idea. 

One of my learnings having played with this Surface Pro 3 is with Kodu.  Kodu is a free program that introduces kids to the idea of computer programming by creating a video game with simple instructions and a Minecraft like environment. 

What if I combined the two ideas? 

I propose to put a Microsoft Surface tablet (probably a Surface Pro 3) on the wall of an elementary school hallway, about three and a half feet off the ground.  It would be encased around the perimeter in Plexiglas, secured to the wall, and powered.  I further propose that it be set to wake up when you hit the windows button on the tablet, and then it would be configured as to show Kodu.  Perhaps it would also have a few other apps too, but they would be quite limited in selection. Other than explaining that there is a tablet in the hallway, and that it is very nice, and can be used to make video games, I would then offer no adult intervention or help.   I wonder if kids when they go by the tablet would:

a) play with it

b) figure out how to edit Kodu

c) gather in numbers around the screen

d) talk about what they are learning

e) create something new

What could go wrong.  Someone could damage the tablet.  Someone could attempt to steal the tablet.  But, if reasonable precautions are taken, I bet the kids would find it an interesting experience, and would treat the tablet well.   Perhaps the tablet would be behind Plexiglas, but a Surface Touch keyboard would be open to the kids (touchable, but not removable).  They are quite durable! 

surface touch keyboard

This would further mitigate risk to the tablet.

I believe we need teachers, but I also believe that kids are able to self-organize and learn in the right situations, and think that Kodu would be perfect for this.  Imagine getting elementary aged children interested in computer programming because they like challenge, and enables them to make a world how THEY envision it.  One where they are in the driver seat. 

Isn’t that why people code in the first place?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Survival Skills for Digital Natives in the Analog Jungle

Part 1

Students in my class come with their own set of needs.  In this series of blog posts, I will be sharing some of the skills I am teaching them to help themselves in class.  I teach the whole class these skills because although they are targeted to some, they are beneficial to all.

Lost in Translation

Some of my students are newly-arrived from other countries, and they are paying a lot of money to attend our schools as International Education Students.  But, due to government cutbacks there is less support for these students, in class or in the form of pull out classes. 
I have a borrowed Surface Pro 3 tablet for my classroom, a 1st generation Surface RT and my own personal Windows phone.  All have the Bing Translator app.  This app allows someone to speak into the device, or hold the camera over some text, and the app will use the power of the cloud to translate.  There are offline translation packs available.  My most commonly used one now is Chinese (simplified)
When you use the translate app on the tablet, it allows you to easily toggle between translation direction.  I can ask a question, hit the switch arrow, and my Mandarin speaking student can answer back in his own language.  Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Back and Forth Conversation Using Bing Translate
Sometimes I needed to translate part of a sentence, sometimes we used it for the whole sentence in our conversation.  At the bottom is the two way arrows that we use to switch back and forth between languages. 
And on my Windows phone:
Bing Translate on my Phone

Wherever it is supported I use the speaker icon so that my students can hear the words spoken to them from the device.  This is because early in my career I read a book by Jim Trelease (the Read Aloud Handbook) which said that listening comprehension is higher than reading comprehension for children up to age 13.
I am told the translation is pretty accurate, and that the pronunciation is understandable. 
This is incredibly empowering for my students.  One student has now gotten his own tablet, and is writing Mandarin characters which are being translated into English.  He feels very proud to be able to communicate on his own while he is learning English as fast as he can.
It isn’t perfect, but it is one more way to equip kids with skills to advocate for themselves, and to be more independent in school.